A sniffle and cough, throat discomfort, followed by a bodyache and lethargy. All too often, this signifies the start of a “flu”. This contagious illness is highly preventable with a vaccination.

What is influenza?

Influenza, sometimes shortened as “flu”, is a respiratory infection caused by the Influenza virus. Influenza is usually seasonal, with more cases occurring in April to June, and November to January. There are many different strains of Influenza. Sometimes, a particularly contagious strain comes around¬† (usually from animals) and causes a serious outbreak (eg. H1N1).

The typical symptoms of an influenza infection are fever, cough and chest discomfort, malaise, extreme lethargy, headaches and bodyaches. The duration of influenza is variable, but can last between 5 days to 10 days.

What about the common cold?

The common cold is caused by a large number of different viruses, but not influenza.

The common cold viruses also give rise to respiratory symptoms, but they are slightly different from the influenza symptoms. The symptoms of fever, aches, and malaise are usually milder. There tend to be more sneezing, stuffy or runny nose, and throat discomfort with the common cold. The duration of the common cold can last from 3 days to 1 week, but some symptoms may take longer to completely resolve.

How do we know if we have influenza or the common cold?

The 2 illnesses are similar, but not completely. The symptoms of influenza are considered more serious than that of the common cold.¬†Besides the symptoms, since the common cold is more “common”, there is a higher chance the cough you are having may be due to the common cold rather than influenza.

However, we cannot reliably differentiate the two based on symptoms and relative incidence of the 2 diseases. Only by going for a laboratory test (usually a nose or throat swab), can we differentiate the two.

What is the treatment of influenza?

The treatment depends on the severity of the influenza illness.

Most of the cases tend to be mild or even asymptomatic. The doctor will probably treat you with medications to reduce the symptoms and bring comfort to the patient. Adequate hydration, proper nutrition, and sufficient rest will help with recovery. Medical leave to rest at home is usually given to allow the patient to rest, and to prevent further spread should the patient continue to go to school or work.

For severe cases, patients can develop pneumonia, dehydration, and secondary sinus or ear infections. For patients with pre-existing medical conditions, influenza may stress the body and cause those conditions to worsen, such as heart failure or diabetic emergencies. Severe cases usually occur in high risk patients. High risk patients include persons above 65 years old, persons with lung or heart disorders (such as asthma, COPD, ischaemic heart disease), persons with diabetes mellitus, persons with renal diseases, persons with suppressed immune system, and others. The severe cases may require anti-viral medications such as Tamiflu. Some may require hospitalisation for monitoring, hydration, supporting the respiratory system, and to treat the other complications.

As you can see, influenza is all around us, and in some of us, it may be a serious illness. What can we do to protect ourselves?

Influenza can be prevented by taking precautions against transmission of the virus. It is spread by respiratory droplets. Sneezing, coughing, or even talking, or touching respiratory droplets can transmit the virus. So protect yourself by wearing a mask, washing hands properly with soap, avoiding sharing utensils, food and drinks.

Influenza vaccination is recommended to protect against the most prevalent circulating strains of influenza.

Who should be vaccinated?

In Singapore, the following population groups are recommended for vaccination:

a. Persons aged 65 years or older;
b. Young children (aged 6 to 59 months);
c. Pregnant women (all stages);
d. Persons with chronic medical diseases (including cardiovascular, pulmonary, metabolic, renal, neurologic, hepatic, or haematologic disorders);
e. Persons who are immunosuppressed; and
f. Anyone staying in intermediate or long term care facilities.

For people who do not belong to the above population groups, vaccination is still beneficial. Because some people may be asymptomatic carriers of influenza, they could be spreading the infection to the vulnerable groups of people. Being vaccinated will reduce the chance of you becoming an asymptomatic carrier and thus you are protecting your family and close contacts.

How often should vaccination be done?

Annually. The current flu vaccine protects against 4 influenza strains. The composition of the vaccine changes in response to the changes in the circulating strains of virus. This is because the virus constantly evolves. The flu vaccine may cover a different strain compared to the previous year’s vaccine. This is just like updating your computer’s anti-virus software. People used to wait until they are going for vacation before getting vaccinated. However, with globalisation and frequent overseas visitors to Singapore, influenza is endemic and vaccination should not be reserved only when you’re planning to travel.

What are the side effects? Is there a risk of catching influenza from the vaccine?

Most people will not experience any side effects from the vaccine. The common side effects are minor, and they include pain, swelling, discomfort at the injection site which lasts less than 2 days; or rarely a low-grade fever lasting less than 2 days. These side effects are considerably milder than the symptoms caused by the actual flu.

The serious side effects are extremely rare. An acute allergic reaction may occur within minutes to hours of injection. While the reaction may be life-threatening, treatment for allergic reactions are available.

The vaccine cannot cause influenza. This is because the vaccine contains inactivated virus.

Can I use my Medisave account to pay for the vaccination?

Yes. If you belong to the target population for the influenza vaccination in Singapore, and you have not used your annual allowance of $400 for certain outpatient treatments in your Medisave account, then you can pay for the vaccination using your Medisave account.

What are you still waiting for? Make an appointment for your whole family at one of our clinics today!

Here are some related articles you might be interested in:

Australia flu outbreak 2017 – Channel NewsAsia

Misconceptions about Seasonal Flu and Flu Vaccines – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Adults can use Medisave to pay for recommended vacinations for Nov 1 2017 – Singapore Straits Times