The coming of winter conjures up fond images of hot chocolate by the fireplace, ski trips and snow days, holidays and family.
As a hospital-based internal medicine physician, however, I have a unique perspective: winter brings to mind medical wards filled with patients struggling to breathe, suffering from low oxygen levels and respiratory failure.
Every winter we see a return of that dreaded illness, influenza (the flu). Indeed, the flu leads to many hospitalizations and even deaths annually; last year alone, the death toll exceeded 79,400, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I cannot stress this enough -- please get your flu vaccination.
The flu is frequently thought of as a minor illness and is often considered to be synonymous with the common cold. This is actually not the case.
Rather than a minor annoyance of a runny nose, the flu will knock you off your feet. Affected people can experience high fevers, muscle soreness throughout their body (known as myalgias), sore throats, and difficulty breathing.
It can hit you all of a sudden, like a ton of bricks. It is highly contagious, spread through droplets in the air. It affects people of all ages indiscriminately but can be much more serious and life-threatening for those who are very young and very old.
While there is a medication that can shorten the duration and morbidity of the flu, the best treatment is to not get it in the first place. The flu vaccine is the best prevention of this virus.
The flu shot is recommended for anyone over the age of 6 months. It is safe, effective, and widely available. There are even versions that are made without eggs for those who have an allergy.
As an added benefit, if you protect yourself, you are also protecting others from exposure. And no, it does not cause autism. And no, it does not cause the flu (although some people can experience muscle soreness afterward).
Influenza is a class of viruses that is always mutating. The flu vaccine is reformulated each year to combat these mutations and is based on virology data from around the world. This means that it is not always 100% effective in preventing contraction of influenza; however, those who are already vaccinated and still get the flu tend to have a much milder course.
I may seem like an overbearing, nagging doctor, but this advice comes from experience. A few years ago, I took care of a 65-year-old woman who was having significant wheezing and shortness of breath. We quickly diagnosed her with influenza and started her on treatment.
She was a vibrant, funny woman, a mother of two and grandmother of four who enjoyed life traveling and hiking. But despite our best efforts, her breathing deteriorated, her oxygen levels dropped, and she ended up on life-support machines.
The flu eventually took her life. She had not received her yearly flu shot.
It continues to stick with me that something so preventable still causes so much pain. A few weeks ago, I diagnosed my first hospitalized patient with influenza in 2019. Not only did the patient have difficulty breathing, but it also worsened her chronic heart condition.
The season is again upon us. Get your flu shot. It'll protect not only yourself, but the loved ones around you, so that your winter can be more about hot chocolate and snow, rather than hospitals and sickness.