The most important tool for fighting the
everchanging flu virus is immunization by a killed virus vaccine
licensed by FDA. The vaccine is made from highly purified,
egg-grown viruses that have been made noninfectious.
Vaccination is available to anyone who wants to reduce their
chances of getting the flu. Studies have shown the vaccine's
effectiveness rate to be 70 to 90 percent in healthy young adults.
In the elderly and in people with certain chronic illnesses, the
vaccine sometimes doesn't prevent illness altogether, but it does
reduce its severity and the risk of complications.
The government's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices
strongly recommends vaccination for the following high-risk
- people aged 65 or older
- residents of nursing homes and other facilities that provide
care for chronically ill persons
- people over the age of 6 months, including pregnant women, who
have certain underlying medical conditions that required
hospitalization or regular doctors' visits during the preceding
These conditions include:
- asthma, anemia, metabolic disease such as diabetes, or heart,
lung or kidney disease
- impaired immune system due to HIV infection, treatment with
drugs such as long-term steroids, or cancer treatment with
radiation or chemotherapy
- children and teenagers (6 months to 18 years) who must take
aspirin regularly and therefore may be at risk of developing Reye
syndrome if they get the flu.
To reduce the risk of transmitting flu to high-risk persons--and
to protect themselves from infection--the advisory committee
recommends flu shots for people with regular close contact with
high-risk groups. Such people include health-care workers, nursing
home personnel, home-care providers, and children. Police,
firefighters, and other community service providers may also find
Because it takes the immune system about six to eight weeks to
respond to vaccination, the best time to get the flu vaccine is
mid-October to mid-November, before the December-to-March U.S. flu
The vaccine's most common side effect is soreness at the
vaccination site for up to two days. Some people may experience
post-shot fever, malaise, sore muscles, and other symptoms
resembling the flu that can last for one to two days. Actually, the
flu vaccine can't cause flu because it contains only inactivated
The vaccine should be repeated annually, since the immunity is
believed to last only about a year, and because the vaccine's
composition changes each year based on the flu strains scientists
expect to be most common.
To decide which strains of influenza virus should be incorporated
into the vaccine for the coming flu season, FDA's Vaccines and
Related Biologicals Advisory Committee meets in late January each
year to consider reports from national and international
surveillance systems. A World Health Organization panel meets in
Geneva in mid-February to make final recommendations for the next
season's flu vaccine.
The strains are labeled by their type (A, B or C) and the place
where the strain was isolated. In 1996, the predominant strains
were A/Johannesberg, A/Texas, and B/Beijing. The anticipated
strains for the 1996-1997 flu season are largely the same: A/Texas,
A/Wuhan-like, and B/Beijing.
"In the not-too-distant future," says Iacuzio, "consumers may have
alternatives to the flu shot, including different delivery methods
like nasal drops or a spray." Major pharmaceutical companies, in
cooperation with scientists representing NIH, FDA's Center for
Biologics Evaluation and Research, and academia, are making
significant strides, also, toward an even more protective
Some people--but not many--should avoid the flu shot. People
allergic to eggs and people with certain other allergies and
medical problems like bronchitis or pneumonia should consult a
doctor before getting a flu shot. And those with a high fever
should not receive the vaccine until they feel better.
Pregnant women who have a high-risk condition should be immunized
regardless of the stage of pregnancy; healthy pregnant women may
also want to consult their health-care providers about being
In the rare cases when the vaccine is not advisable, two
prescription drugs are available for prevention of type A
influenza: Symmetrel (amantadine), approved by FDA in 1976, and
Flumadine (rimantadine), approved by FDA in 1993. Either drug also
can be used to reduce symptoms and shorten the illness if
administered within 48 hours after symptoms appear.
If, despite precautions, you do get a cold or flu,
besides taking an OTC medication if needed and as directed, drink
fluids and get plenty of bed rest. "Your body is trying to attack
the virus," Iacuzio says. "Give in, and give your body a chance to
fight off the infection. It takes energy to do that."
Many people are convinced that vitamin C can prevent colds or
relieve symptoms. There is no conclusive evidence of this, but the
vitamin may reduce the severity or duration of symptoms, according
to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. But
taking vitamin C in large amounts over long periods can be harmful,
sometimes causing diarrhea and distorting common medical tests of
the urine and blood.
Another proposed therapy, interferon-alpha nasal spray, can
prevent infection and illness but causes unacceptable side effects
like nosebleeds, according to the institute.
Many patients have their own, unproven theories about what works.
"As long as it's not harmful, why not try it?" says Iacuzio. "But
be skeptical of something that hasn't been clinically proven in a
well-designed, placebo-controlled study." So what about chicken
soup? It may soothe a sore throat, unstuff clogged passageways, and
hydrate a thirsty body. At the very least, according to Iacuzio,
"It's good TLC. Psychologically, that's important when you're