November 8, 2006 | By: Terri McLean

The winter flu season is fast approaching, but people who want to protect themselves against this all-too-common respiratory ailment still have time to get a flu vaccine – the No. 1 preventive weapon.

“The optimal time to get a flu vaccine is in October and November, before the flu season gets under way,” said Peggy Riley, health specialist for nursing for the Cooperative Extension Service at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture. “It doesn’t mean you can’t have it after that, but that’s the recommended optimal time.”

Riley, who works with the Health Education through Extension Leadership program, said the vaccine – though not 100-percent effective – greatly decreases the likelihood that a person will get the flu, which usually revs up in January and can last through May.

“It (the vaccine) is usually very effective,” she said.

Each year in the United States, 5 to 20 percent of people get the flu, according to the U.S. government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms include fever, headache, tiredness, muscle aches, dry cough, sore throat, and a runny or stuffy nose. Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea are symptoms often experienced by children who get the flu. 

There are two types of flu vaccines, Riley said. The flu shot is an inactivated vaccine given with a needle and is recommended for anyone, ages 6 months and older, who wants to reduce the chances for getting the flu. It is highly recommended for the very young (6 months until their fifth birthday) and for people over 50 years old. People with chronic medical conditions and who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities are also encouraged to be vaccinated each year.

The other type of flu vaccine is available as a nasal spray. The spray is made with live, weakened flu viruses and is recommended for use in healthy people between the ages of 5 and 49. It is not recommended for women who are pregnant.

With the United States set to receive 115 million flu vaccines this year, Riley said both the flu shot and nasal spray should be in plentiful supply at doctors’ offices and health facilities across the nation and in Kentucky. However, the CDC said that distribution problems could still create some availability problems.

In addition to flu vaccines, there are other prevention measures people can take to help ward off the flu, Riley said. They include using proper hand-washing techniques, covering your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, staying home from work or school if you have flu symptoms, and staying healthy by eating right, exercising and getting adequate sleep.

“It is important to know that the flu virus is contagious and can be spread to other people,” she said. “The flu is contagious from one day before to five days after you develop symptoms.”

The flu is caused by the influenza virus. Riley said people are often confused about the differences between the seasonal-type flu that is passed from person to person, usually in the winter, and avian (bird) flu, which is caused by viruses that occur naturally in some birds but rarely spreads from birds to humans. Pandemic flu is a special situation that occurs when a new strain of flu breaks outs and people have little to no immunity to it, causing widespread illness. Currently, there are no outbreaks of avian flu or pandemic flu in the United States, she said.


Peggy Riley, 859-257-2968