By Alexander Germanis
With what seemed like a particularly long summer season finally behind us, thoughts are automatically turning to the cooler months of fall and, for many at least, the dreaded onset of winter.
Although the winter months house their own joys, they also bring with them an increased chance of sickness, so much so that the winter season has also become synonymous with the flu season.
The flu is only one thing the medical professionals at OSF HealthCare want everyone to be prepared for. ‘Tis the season not just for flu shots, but also to take other preventative measures to ensure a healthy close to this year and healthy start to the new.
Dedication to healthcare
As we wrap things up at the end of the year, both literally and figuratively, our thoughts are often about what we can give to or do for others. While these sentiments are both noble as well as in keeping with the spirit of the season, some of those thoughts should be reserved for ourselves — specifically, what we can do to take care of our health.
Take it from someone whose work revolves around thinking of others on a daily basis. Kari Bush, MSN, RN, is the manager of quality outcomes and compliance for OSF HealthCare. Her entire life has been a mission to take care of others — a mission made clear to her after a very harrowing experience in 1991.
Her family’s car was hit head-on by a drunk driver, leaving her entire family in desperate need of emergency medical care. “My parents and little cousin were transported by Life Flight to OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, and we all were patients there,” Kari recalls. “I was there a week myself, while my parents were there for almost a month. The care, concern, and service I experienced myself and saw provided to my family as an impressionable 10 year-old is what made me decide to become a nurse. My mind was made up at that time and never changed.”
Thus began Kari’s mission to help others, to do for them what was once done for her and her family.
An ounce of prevention
Perhaps one of the simplest ways Kari and her colleagues at OSF can help others and one of the easiest ways we can take care of ourselves this season is with vaccinations.
“It is important to get a flu vaccine every year because the vaccine itself contains different viruses that are predicted to be in the area,” Kari explains.
“Pneumonia doesn’t really have a ‘season’ per se,” she continues. “Regardless, pneumonia vaccines are important because the vaccine helps prevent the disease as well as the complications it includes.”
It’s never too soon or too late to get vaccinated. Whereas everyone age six months and older should get a flu vaccine every year, pneumonia vaccines are recommended for those of 65 years and older. Adults of younger ages who have had diagnoses putting them at a higher risk for pneumonia should also get vaccinated.
Vaccination is a simple process, taking 15 minutes at the most. OSF administers both flu and pneumonia vaccines through their primary care offices but also offers them as an inpatient service. Medicare covers both vaccinations, as do many insurance plans. Check with your plan to find out if you are covered.
With talk of vaccinations also comes a rise in concerns involving vaccinations. There can be some side effects associated with the flu vaccine, including soreness and swelling around the injection site, fever, headache, and fatigue. For the pneumonia vaccine, about half of those who have had it reported feeling drowsy, experienced loss of appetite, and redness or pain around the injection site. These side effects often go away within a day or two. Regardless, such side effects are preferable to suffering from the disease itself.
Also surrounding vaccinations are the myths associated with them. Should any of the following myths be the reason you may have been avoiding getting yourself or a loved one vaccinated, Kari and OSF wish to put your mind at ease.
The vaccine cannot itself give you the disease for which you are being vaccinated. OSF does not use “live” vaccines, meaning there is no risk of contracting the virus.
The flu virus has multiple strains, and some are more prevalent than others from year to year. Only by getting inoculated on a yearly basis can you ensure maximum protection. That being said, it is still possible to get a strain of the flu, either before you build up an immunity from the vaccine — such a period is roughly two weeks —or from one of the myriad strains of flu not covered by the vaccine.
Allergies are a major concern when considering a vaccine, particularly allergies to eggs and latex. However, OSF only uses non-latex vaccines and they provide vaccines even to those with severe egg allergies. Furthermore, while ethylmercury used to be in flu vaccines in a preservative called thimerosal, it is no longer used.
Always the season
Although we think of this time of year as a season for the flu, it is always the season to take preventative measures against cancer. Mammograms and colon screenings are two things men and women should add to their check-up routines, starting at the age of 50. “However, based on personal or family history and after a discussion with your primary care physician, you may want to start screenings earlier if there is an increased risk identified,” Kari suggests.
Unlike flu vaccinations, there is generally no need for annual mammograms or colon screenings. “Generally, if nothing is found, meaning the tests come back normal,” she adds, “a mammogram can be done once every two years and a colonoscopy every 10 years.”
Breast cancer screening has seen an improvement somewhat recently with mammograms entering the digital age. The digital scan allows for better correction, reducing the need for further mammograms. They also have a greater dynamic range than traditional analog mammograms, meaning all areas of the breast can be better examined regardless of the varying densities of breast tissue. Nevertheless, OSF encourages women to not put off getting a mammogram should the digital technology not be readily available.
Although the mammogram is suggested for women 50 years and older, men with a history of breast cancer in their families should consult with their physicians to see if they should get screened as well.
Men and women should both get a colon screening. A colonoscopy is performed while the patient is under general anesthetic. While unconscious, the patient’s large intestine is examined through an endoscope to identify any problems that might be present. Although it can be used to catch signs of inflamed tissue, ulcers, and bleeding, the colonoscopy also screens for colorectal cancer, which according to OSF and the American Cancer Society, is the second leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States. Colorectal cancer is also the fourth most common cancer in men and women.
The endoscope, or colonoscope, used during a colonoscopy is a long, flexible tube capable of not only providing visuals to the physician through its camera, it can also be used to irrigate, suction, and inject air, while it doubles as a vehicle for surgical instruments, should any tissue or polyps need to be removed for further examination.
A colonoscopy typically takes less than a half-hour to perform. Preparation for it usually begins the day before, with the patient abstaining from solid foods for the entire day or more leading up to the test. Only clear liquids should be ingested during this period. One’s doctor may suggest an enema or laxative as well.
While the colonoscopy is the main colon screening, there are different types besides. “The other tests are the flexible sigmoidoscopy, which is similar to a colonoscopy but performed without sedation and only looks at part of the colon,” Kari says. “Then there is the fecal occult blood test (FOBT). The FOBTs are kits that are sent home with the patient. The patient collects their specimen via the instructions and mails it into the lab for processing.”
Think of others
Although Kari and the other nurses and doctors at OSF HealthCare want you to think of your health this season, there is definitely still a selfless aspect of getting vaccinations and screenings completed.
While a flu vaccine can keep you from getting sick, it has the added benefit of preventing you from becoming a carrier of the flu and spreading it to those around you. Some people are more susceptible to the negative effects of the flu virus, such as older adults, young children, and people with chronic health conditions.
Getting yourself screened for cancer will benefit your loved ones, as it will set their minds at ease as well as better ensure you will be around longer.
Remember, when you protect your health this season, you are helping to protect the health of those around you.