Influenza and pneumonia are common respiratory infections that affect people of all ages and represent the 8th leading cause of death in the United States. Influenza is a contagious viral illness which symptoms typically include fever, chills, cough, headache, and generalized body aches. Less frequently it can also cause gastrointestinal symptoms (nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea). Influenza can be contracted year-long, but it is more common in the winter months. The illness is frequently self-limited, but serious complications, including death, can occur, especially in those with a predisposing medical condition such as underlying lung or immunologic disease. Pregnant women, infants, and the elderly are also more prone to complications.
Bacterial pneumonia is most commonly caused by a species of Streptococcus (also referred to as pneumococcus) that infects the lung. Like influenza it has a seasonal variation and can have devastating effects in those at risk. Symptoms of pneumonia are similar to influenza, but affected individuals also frequently complain of difficulty breathing and coughing up phlegm or mucous. In the elderly, pneumonia can have an insidious onset, show few symptoms, and even lack a cough.
Antivirals and antibiotics are the cornerstone of therapy for influenza and pneumonia infections respectively. Once the infection is acquired, prompt treatment is key to a favorable outcome, and late initiation of therapy is associated with higher rates of treatment failure, complications, and death. Fortunately vaccination has proven to be safe and effective in preventing both pneumococcal pneumonia and influenza.
In 2009, the world faced the first flu pandemic in decades; the culprit was the 2009 H1N1 Influenza virus. Flu illness due to H1N1 was characterized by an unusually high number of cases with serious complications in previously healthy adults with no apparent risk factors. This year the Centers for Disease and Control’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices have expanded the recommendations for vaccination to include all persons 6 months and older (unless contraindicated). The vaccine is formulated every year to protect against the strains of Influenza expected to be active during flu season. The vaccine for this season includes the H1N1 strain that caused disease last year and other strains expected to be active during 2010-2011.
It is important to be vaccinated in the early fall before the peak of the influenza season. As of mid October there is low influenza activity reported nationwide, making this a great time to get vaccinated. The pneumococcal vaccine, on the other hand, is recommended only for adults aged 65 years and older and for younger adults with an underlying medical condition that puts them at greater risk of developing complications.
Other general recommendations to decrease the risk of acquiring influenza include:
Avoid crowded areas during peak influenza season.
Wash hands frequently with soap and water or an alcohol based hand rub.
Avoid touching your eyes, mouth, and nose, because viruses spread through these routes.
Avoid contact with sick persons.
If you are sick, don’t forget to cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze, and stay at home at least for 24 hours after your fever has resolved in order to avoid spreading the disease. Foremost, always seek advice from a health professional if you think you are becoming sick and before vaccination if you are unsure if it is indicated and safe for you.
For information on vaccines and immunization, contact:
1-800-CDC-INFO English & Spanish
1-800-232-4636 English & Spanish
By Gerardo Garza, M.D.