No one likes getting shots. But a two-second prick in the arm is the best protection against up to two weeks in bed with a high fever, crippling body aches and other painful symptoms of the seasonal flu.
“The flu shot is very, very safe, and a smart thing to do for somebody who wants to prevent the flu,” said Paula Swinford, director of the Office for Wellness and Health Promotion, part of the Division of Student Affairs.
Influenza kills approximately 36,000 people and lands another 200,000 in the hospital each year in the United States, according to studies by scientists from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That’s why the CDC recommends that everyone six months of age and older get a flu shot. This protects those who actually get the shots, as well as the elderly, infants and other vulnerable people around them.
It’s easy for Trojans to comply with the CDC’s universal vaccination recommendation: Students can get vaccinated at the health centers on either the University Park or Health Sciences campus for $25, which may be reimbursable depending on insurance coverage.
Faculty, staff and the public can swing by the pharmacies on either campus to receive one for free or for $25, depending on health insurance coverage. It takes five minutes or less, and no appointment is necessary.
The CDC’s official vaccine information sheet explains that the flu shot contains dead, harmless influenza viruses, which don’t make people sick. Each year, the vaccine makers include three strains that have raged through the Southern Hemisphere, where the flu season precedes that of the Northern Hemisphere.
“The majority of the time, they do get the strains pretty much right on,” said Jeffery Goad, associate professor and director of student outreach for community health at the USC School of Pharmacy.
One of the most serious pandemics, 2009’s H1N1 flu virus, broke out in the summer, after the seasonal vaccine had already been manufactured. This year’s shot includes protection against an H1N1-like virus in addition to two other strains.
After getting flu shots, Trojans should protect their health by exercising, getting adequate rest, drinking lots of water and eating healthy diets.
“If you exercise regularly, you’re constantly boosting your body’s immunity, a natural defense against viruses,” said Chelsea Pereira, former fitness coordinator for Recreational Sports, part of the Division of Student Affairs. “You want to have a mix of cardio, strength and flexibility.”
The body also builds its defenses through good nutrition, which includes a balance of whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats. However, “the foods that really support the immune system are fruit and vegetables — just the vitamins and minerals and the antioxidants that are in them,” said Patrice Barber, dietician at the University Park Health Center (UPHC), part of the Division of Student Affairs.
She recommended eating carrots, apples, citrus, and even frozen fruits and vegetables because of their long shelf lives, and she also advised enjoying whatever produce is in season.
“The winter is when we see all those wonderful orange vegetables like acorn squash and butternut squash and pumpkin and sweet potatoes and yams,” she said. “And the fruits that are most unique to the winter: dates, kiwi, navel oranges, tangerines, persimmons, pomegranates and red pears — those are really juicy, sweet and wonderful, and they have a very limited season.”
But even if that red pear looks delicious, people should avoid taking bites from the food of others.
“The more you keep things away from your mucus membranes, the better,” Swinford said. “You wash your hands, you don’t touch your eyes, you don’t drink out of other people’s glasses, and you basically create some level of personal hygiene.”
Alcohol-based hand sanitizer gels, available in automatic dispensers in many campus buildings, can also kill influenza and other germs, Goad said.
Even with these many precautions, flu is highly contagious: Even before someone shows symptoms, the airborne virus can be transmitted easily within a six-foot radius, Goad explained. Sick people continue to “shed” particles of the virus throughout their illnesses.
Influenza symptoms are worse and longer lasting than a simple 24-hour tummy upset, often mistaken for flu but actually caused by something called a norovirus.
“There is no gastrointestinal symptomatology associated with influenza,” Goad said. “People who have influenza may not be able to get out of bed, and there are severe fevers and chills.”
To prevent spreading the disease, people with the flu should do more than cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze: They should stay home.
“You need to not be in community places where you accidentally sneeze, or you cover your mouth with your hand and then hold onto the doorknob: It’s rude,” Swinford said. “If you’re sick, stay home. Your professor will actually cut you some slack. They really don’t want watery-eyed, dribbling pus balls in the seats in front of them.”
Sick, dorm-bound students can call USC Hospitality at (213) 740-6285 and order easy-to-digest “BRAT” meals — bananas, rice, applesauce and toast — which will be delivered to their rooms free of charge. They can also make appointments at the student health centers, where a clinician might prescribe an antiviral medication, such as Tamiflu, which slightly shortens the illness’ duration if taken within 48 hours of symptom onset.
“The antivirals that we use only decrease symptoms by a day to a day-and-a-half, so they’re not wonder drugs,” Goad said. “They don’t completely abolish your symptoms, but they will get you on your feet faster.”
Clearly, the half-milliliter of prevention contained in a flu shot is easily worth a pound of cure.
“You’ll find the people who have had the flu — boy, they know, and they remember,” said Tammie Akiyoshi, nursing director at UPHC. “Those are the people who swear that they will get the flu shot every year after that.”