Flu Facts for People With Cancer

November 18, 2013
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In this podcast, we discuss flu vaccination and other ways to lower your risk of getting the flu.



You’re listening to a podcast from Cancer.Net. This cancer information website is produced by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, known as ASCO, the world’s leading professional organization for doctors that care for people with cancer.

Today we’ll discuss flu vaccination and other ways to lower your risk of getting the flu.

The flu is an illness caused by the influenza virus that is passed from person to person. When you develop the flu, it affects your respiratory system, which are the parts of your body involved in breathing. The symptoms of the flu are similar to those of a common cold, such as fever, cough, sore throat, stuffy or runny nose, body aches, chills, fatigue, and headache. However, these symptoms tend to be worse when you have the flu. Normally, flu symptoms last only up to two weeks. People who have cancer and cancer survivors may have a lowered immune system, which makes their bodies less able to fight the virus. This means they are more likely to get sicker from the flu and have complications, such as pneumonia.

One way you can decrease your risk of getting the flu by getting a flu vaccine. A vaccine is a way to train the immune system to recognize and destroy the virus before it has a chance to make you sick. There are three different types of flu virus: Influenza A or H1N1, another influenza A called H3N2, and influenza B. While these are the main types of flu, each type is constantly changing, so new strains of each of these appear every year. Most flu vaccines will protect against this year’s most common strain of each of these types.

There are four different ways to receive a flu vaccine. The first is a regular shot that injects the vaccine into the muscle of your arm with a needle. This shot uses a dead virus that cannot make you sick. The second way is a shot injected into the skin, called an intradermal shot, using a smaller needle. This type is approved for adults ages eighteen to sixty-four. The third way is a high-dose flu shot, specifically for people age sixty-five and older. It’s designed to get a stronger response from a person’s immune system, which can be lower in people who are older. The fourth way is through a nasal spray that is squirted into the nose. This type contains a weakened flu virus that is alive. This type is only approved for people ages two through forty-nine who are not pregnant and are generally healthy.

Talk with your doctor about whether the flu vaccine is right for you, what type is recommended, and when is the best time to receive it. If you are receiving cancer treatment or are a cancer survivor, it’s recommended that you get the flu shot instead of the nasal spray. Because the strains of the flu virus vary each year, people should receive a new flu vaccine each year. Annual flu vaccinations usually begin in September, ahead of the flu season, which can begin as early as October and last until May. Although it’s best to get vaccinated before flu season begins, it’s still beneficial to receive it later in the season. It usually takes about two weeks after vaccination for your immune system to be ready to fight the flu. It is also important that the people around you, such as your family members and close friends, receive a flu vaccine as well, to reduce the chance of your exposure to the influenza virus.

If you’re scheduled to receive cancer treatment that will lower your immune system, it’s best to get the flu shot before treatment begins. If you’re currently receiving treatment, you should get the vaccine when your immune system is as healthy as possible. It’s important to talk with your doctor before getting vaccinated to know when to receive the vaccine and what type you should get. Also, some people with cancer should not receive the flu vaccine, and your doctor will be able to discuss this with you.

In addition to the flu vaccine, there are ways to help lower your risk of getting the flu. .

The flu spreads through coughing and sneezing. Also, the virus can live up to eight hours on the surface of objects, so you can sometimes get the flu by touching objects that the virus is on.

Here are six tips to help reduce your risk of getting the flu.

Tip number one: Wash your hands often with soap and warm water, and use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if you can’t wash your hands.

Number two.   Don’t get close to someone who is sick or appears ill, and ask people not to visit you if they are sick or live with someone who has the flu.

Tip number three: If you must be around someone who has a cold or flu, ask that person to cough and sneeze into a tissue or into his or her sleeve.

Number four:  Use soap or alcohol to wipe off the phone and other items that a sick person touches before you use them.

Number five:   Try not to touch your nose, mouth, and eyes after touching shared objects or shaking hands with someone.

And, tip number six:  Avoid using products that are not likely to prevent the flu. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration lists fake flu prevention products on their website at www.fda.gov.

Finally, if you have cancer, call your doctor’s office right away if you have flu symptoms and follow the advice of your health care team. You may need a prescription antiviral drug to make the flu milder and go away faster. These medications work best if you take them within 48 hours after your symptoms start. In addition, you may need to delay cancer treatment until you feel better. Unless you need to visit the doctor, it’s best to stay home and rest while you’re sick with the flu.

For more information on staying healthy during or after cancer treatment, talk with your doctor or visit www.cancer.net. Cancer.Net is supported by the Conquer Cancer Foundation, which is working to create a world free from the fear of cancer by funding breakthrough research, sharing knowledge with physicians and patients worldwide, and supporting initiatives to ensure that all people have access to high-quality cancer care. Thank you for listening to this Cancer.Net podcast.