Protection: Dr. J. J. Soares of The Hamilton Medical Center holds up a sample of this season's flu vaccine. *Photo by B. Candace Ray
Protection: Dr. J. J. Soares of The Hamilton Medical Center holds up a sample of this season's flu vaccine. *Photo by B. Candace Ray
Symptoms of the dreaded flu include fever (100 degrees plus temperature), muscle aches and chills. The sufferer may or may not experience headache, sore throat, runny nose, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and cough.

It is interesting to note that most of these unpleasant symptoms are not caused by the invading virus itself, but by the immunological response mounted by the body.

The onset of symptoms means that our immune system is fighting back. Immunocompromised individuals may not have any symptoms, as their immune system does not respond in the correct way.

Immune system

Healthy individuals with an intact and functioning immune system usually win the fight against the viruses.

Compromised individuals may not, although ironically showing fewer symptoms than normal.

The incubation period of the flu can range from one to four days. Individuals having contracted the flu may pass it on to others from as early as the day before showing symptoms and up to seven days after they become symptomatic.

One can reduce the chance of infecting others with frequent hand washing, covering one’s nose and mouth with their sleeve (not their hands) when they sneeze or cough, trying not to touch one’s nose, mouth or eyes and staying at home — away from work and not socializing — for 24 hours after the fever ends.

Once one has the flu, treatment is symptom-related. Take regular Tylenol/Paracetamol for fever and drink plenty of fluids to compensate for the increased fluid loss that diarrhoea, vomiting and fever bring.

In life-threatening infections, antiviral prescription medicines are an option, but most folks won’t need these to get over the flu.

The flu shot is meant to protect us from a number of influenza viruses, which circulate each year. The flu vaccine is different each year. Although usually containing no live viruses, the flu vaccine exhibits some of the proteins typically found in the strains of flu.

Upon injection of the vaccine, the immune system launches a defence against these proteins by making antibodies against them. Since the proteins in the vaccine are the same ones found on the surface of the influenza viruses circulating that year, the body, by default, is launching a defence against the flu as well.

Administering the vaccine causes the body to produce these useful antibodies in advance. This process takes usually up to a few weeks.

Some of these remain in the blood as memory cells so that if the person is exposed to the flu virus in the future, the body can rapidly ramp up production of these antibodies in a matter of hours/days (rather than the days to weeks it would take to mount this response from scratch).

These ready-made antibodies neutralize any virus in the bloodstream before it reaches high enough titres (specific value) to cause an infection. In this way, one is said to be immunized against that form of flu.

The problem is that flu viruses are continuously mutating to evade the immunological system, and each year’s flu viruses are different from those of previous years.

For this reason it is important to get the latest flu vaccine each year. Last year’s vaccine only protects us from last year’s flu, not the new wave of this year’s mutations.

Flu shot

It is good to have the flu shot before the flu season, which runs from October each year and can run as late as up to May. The shots usually arrive here in Bermuda in or around early October.

Once given the shot, it can take about two-weeks for the immune system to mount a proper response. One is said to be fully immunized after about two weeks of receiving the shot.

If a patient gets the flu before the flu shot has mounted its full effect, their symptoms may be a bit milder than someone who hasn’t received the shot at all. Getting the flu shot after one has already had the flu is also valuable as remember the shot immunizes us against more than one virus, which we may yet be exposed to.

For the most part, the shot should not add to the health problems of a patient who has already had the flu and still offers protection against other strains.

A flu shot at any time of the year is better than not receiving one at all. The later one leaves it in the year the less helpful it is, however, as your likelihood of being exposed to one of the flu viruses after ‘the flu season’ is over becomes more remote.

Further protection

Can a person do anything other than having the flu shot to protect themselves against the flu?

Yes. If there is one basic thing in medicine that never changes it is that healthy living is the best thing one can do for themselves to prevent illness. Eating a balanced diet with the proper food groups is the mainstay. Without proper nutrition, the body will not have the building blocks to mount an immune response.

A good diet is usually sufficient. One can take vitamin supplements in hopes of boosting the immune system, but it is generally accepted that one needs little supplementation on top of a balanced diet.

Of course, regular exercise and sufficient rest are important too. In today’s society, stress can also be detrimental to our bodies.

The Hamilton Medical Center offers nominally priced walk-in flu shots to the general public from October till May each year. It is open from 6:45am till 5:30pm during the week, and on Saturday mornings. Appointments are not necessary.