If you have cancer now or have had it in the past, you are at higher risk for complications from the seasonal flu or the 2009 H1N1 flu, including hospitalization or death. Here is important information you should know as you head into the new flu season.
Q. For the first time, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending flu vaccination for all Americans over the age of 6 months. Why the change?
A. Flu vaccination was already recommended for 85 percent of the U.S. population, but the CDC expanded it to almost everyone based on evidence that the vaccine can benefit people of all ages. CDC spokesperson Tom Skinner says health officials are concerned that the 2009 H1N1 virus could continue circulating during this flu season— along with two new seasonal flu viruses— and a substantial proportion of young adults might remain susceptible to infection. The new vaccine, available now, will protect against all three main viruses expected this flu season.
Q. Are cancer patients and survivors more likely to get the flu than others?
A. According to the CDC, it is not certain that cancer patients and survivors are more prone to contracting infection with either the 2009 H1N1 or seasonal flu. Rather, cancer patients and survivors are at a higher risk for complications from all influenza viruses. That is why it is important for you to get your vaccination now so that you have time to build immunity before the flu season kicks into high gear.
Q. What are the symptoms of the 2009 H1N1 and seasonal flu?
A. Symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea. People may be infected with the flu, including the 2009 H1N1, and have respiratory symptoms without a fever.
Q. What should I do if I come into close contact with someone who has the flu?
A. If you have received cancer treatment such as chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy within the last month, or have a blood or lymphatic form of cancer, call your doctor immediately if you have been within six feet of someone known or suspected to have the flu. Your doctor may give you antiviral drugs to help prevent the flu. If you have cancer and have not received treatment within the last month, or you have had cancer in the past but are cancer-free now, and you have had close contact with someone known or suspected to have the flu, call your doctor and ask if you should receive antiviral drugs.
Q. What are antiviral drugs?
A. Antiviral drugs are used to treat and prevent infection with both seasonal and 2009 H1N1 flu viruses. Antiviral drugs are prescription medicines (pills, liquid, or an inhaled powder) that stop flu viruses from reproducing in your body. If you get sick, antiviral drugs can make your illness milder and make you feel better faster. They may also prevent serious flu complications.
Q. As a cancer patient or cancer survivor, what should I do if I suspect I have the flu?
A. If you have received cancer treatment such as chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy within the last month, or have a blood or lymphatic form of cancer, call your doctor immediately if you get flu symptoms.
All cancer patients and survivors should follow the steps below.
- Contact your health care provider and follow his or her instructions.
- Stay home and away from others as much as possible to keep from making them sick. This means you should avoid public activities, including work, school, travel, shopping, social events, and public gatherings. You should stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone (without the use of fever-reducing medicine), except to get medical care or other necessities.
- If you need to go to the doctor’s office, emergency room, or any other health care facility, cover your mouth and nose with a facemask, if available and tolerable, or cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. Let the facility’s staff know you are there because you think you may have the flu.
For more information on the 2010-11 flu season, visit www.cdc.gov/flu/
Lynette Summerill is an award-winning writer who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. In addition to writing about cancer-related issues, she writes a blog, Nonsmoking Nation, which follows global tobacco news and events.