The ALS Association

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Flu Season: What You Need to Know

By Nicole Yarab

flu seasonAs we welcome a change of seasons, we also anticipate an unwelcome visitor, the influenza (flu) virus. The flu is a contagious disease usually transmitted through sneezing, coughing and close contact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Symptoms of the flu are a sudden onset of fever, muscle aches and pains, fatigue and headache. Complications of the flu may include dehydration, sinus infection or bacterial pneumonia.

The CDC recommends getting a flu shot every year because the influenza virus mutates over time, and the flu vaccine is designed to protect against three to four viruses that are believed to cause disease in the current year. It can take up to two weeks for your body to build up antibodies to fight the flu after receiving the vaccine, and you are at higher risk of contracting the flu if you are not vaccinated.

Common side effects of the shot may include mild pain at the injection site, headache and fatigue. The vaccine is also available in two forms: as an injection made of inactivated virus, and as a nasal spray made of live but weakened virus. The nasal spray may be troublesome for many people with ALS due to potential issues with weakened swallowing muscles, thickened secretions and nasal congestion. The injection may be a less stressful and safer option for people with ALS. Most insurance plans cover the flu shot, and it is readily available at most primary care offices, ALS clinics, health departments and pharmacies throughout the community. For people who wish to get vaccinated, it is ideal to do so by October before the peak of the flu season.

Some people, especially children, the elderly and those with certain health conditions may have a more difficult battle with the flu. People living with ALS, as well as their family and caregivers, should talk with their physician to see if they might be good candidates to receive the vaccination. However, some individuals with certain allergies, e.g. eggs, or other medical conditions should not receive the flu vaccine.

Some people may feel that vaccines could be harmful to their health. Risks and benefits of vaccination in any individual must be weighed, and every person has a right to choose what is in their best interest. It is recommended that people living with ALS discuss their condition and health care options with their ALS neurologist or primary care physician.

People with ALS often experience a wide variety of challenges related to weakened swallowing and respiratory muscles, including difficulty managing saliva, coughing and clearing secretions. Consequently, it’s imperative to take steps to avoid any respiratory infections, especially the flu.

A few other simple precautions can make a difference. Whenever possible, avoid rubbing your eyes, nose and touching your face. Frequently wash your hands with soap and warm water or use hand gels when facilities are not available. Try to avoid large crowds, and reschedule visits with family and friends who are currently battling a cold or the flu to reduce your risk. Go to the CDC's website for more information on how to protect yourself and your family this flu season.

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