5 Tips to Avoid the Flu

Transplant recipients and others with suppressed immune systems, such as cancer patients on chemotherapy and people being treated with steroids, are very prone to coming down with the flu. So what can you do to stay healthy? Here are 5 tips to avoid catching the flu this season:

  1. Get vaccinated. The more people that get vaccinated, the less likely it is that communities will experience flu epidemics. I generally recommend that most people older than six months of age, including kidney patients, be vaccinated with the influenza “flu” vaccine. There are, of course, some exceptions: if you are allergic to eggs, have experienced prior allergic reactions to the flu vaccine or have had Guillian Barre syndrome as a complication of the flu vaccine, you should not be vaccinated. If you are a new transplant recipient (within the first 6 months), check with your transplant coordinator to make sure your transplant team allows flu shots in the first 6 months after transplant. To make matters slightly more complicated, there are different types of flu vaccines:
    • Traditional needle variety: There are several needle-based vaccines that protect against different strains of the flu. One vaccine, the “trivalent” version protects against three strains of the flu. The “quadrivalent” flu vaccine protects against four strains of the flu. Recently, there has been some talk in the media about an extra potent flu shot, a.k.a. the High Dose Fluzone. This vaccine has four times the amount of active material in the injection and was approved by the FDA for use in individuals over the age of 65 without additional restrictions. There appears to be an increased risk of fever and sore shoulders with the higher dose. It can be used in kidney patients over the age of 65. Please note that this vaccine is more expensive.
    • Nasal “vaccine” spray: This is known as FluMist® and is a live virus vaccine. Because it contains live virus, kidney transplant recipients, others with suppressed immune systems, and children under two years old should not get the nasal vaccine. Even if you are vaccinated, I want to mention that it is still possible to get influenza. This is why some times you hear about people getting the flu despite getting the flu shot. Because these vaccines don’t protect against all strains of influenza, it is possible to still get the flu, but usually getting a flu shot will shield you from the most virulent strains, so it is typically much milder.
  2. Stick to soap and water. Wash your hands frequently. When you don’t have access to soap and water, carry hand sanitizer with you as a substitute. Especially during flu season, be sure to wash your hands after touching communal surfaces, taking public transportation and shaking hands with many people. If you want to really play it safe, wipe down any surface that many people have touched with anti-bacterial wipes. For example, many supermarkets offer sanitizing wipes to use on the handle of your grocery cart. Consider also wiping down airplane surfaces since tray tables and armrests are rarely (if ever) disinfected.
  3. Hydrate and power up with proper fuel. Drink plenty of water and eat a balanced diet. Getting enough fluids and the right nutrients will help your immune system be the strongest it can be. Don’t forget that even in the cooler weather, your body still needs ample fluid, so be sure to sip H2O!
  4. Get moving! Keep physically active to maintain your overall health. Aside from going to the gym, as the weather cools down, consider other forms of physical activity this autumn. Exercise can take the shape of gardening, raking leaves in the yard, or pumpkin and apple picking. Trick-or-treating even counts if you’re walking around the neighborhood. Try monitoring your steps with a pedometer. Also, just because you’re having fun, doesn’t mean it doesn’t count as exercise. In fact, you’re more likely to keep up a routine if fitness doesn’t feel like a chore.
  5. Consider meds. If the flu virus is spreading in your community, there are medications that you can take to protect against it if you have not been vaccinated, however the dose of these medications may have to be modified or adjusted for your level of kidney function. This is also true of antibiotics or any medication that you take for colds, bacterial infections or other viral infections, so make sure you work with your healthcare practitioner to adjust medication dosing based on your level of kidney function. Over-the-counter cold remedies that are safe to take for patients with high blood pressure are generally designated “HBP.” Any over-the-counter medication that you take for a cold or flu should be approved by your doctor.