I recently had a patient’s family ask what medications or preventative measure they could take to avoid becoming ill with influenza like their family member, my patient. Influenza is rampant this flu season, and many of us may share the same question: What Can We Do to Keep From Getting Sick? The answer? Prophylaxis. That’s a nice medical word, but what does it mean?
What is prophylaxis?
In short, prophylaxis is anything we do to keep us from needing further medical treatment, or to prevent us from contracting an illness or condition.
What are some examples of prophylaxis?
Dental—Patients who have had heart valve replacements, who have certain heart murmurs (such as Mitral Valve Prolapse, or MVP), or who have had joint replacement surgeries take antibiotics prior to dental appointments. The antibiotics prevent bacteria dislodged from the mouth from entering the bloodstream and infecting otherwise susceptible places in the affected heart or joints.
Surgery—Patients prepping for surgery have a list of things to do to be prepared for surgery based on the specific surgery being performed. These protocols help prevent complications and problems. For most surgeries, you’re not allowed to or drink for a certain amount of time before the procedure, in order to prevent aspiration and pneumonia. The surgical team also has a specific protocol to follow in order to make your surgery go as smoothly as possible, as well as to maximize successful recovery, and to minimize complications. These are called SCIP protocols, one of which includes administering a does of antibiotic within an hour before surgery, to prevent infection. Make sure you know how best to be prepared for any surgery you may undergo, and ask your doctor for any clarification you may need.
Vaccines—One of the most common forms of prophylaxis is vaccination. Childhood “shots” or immunizations are given expressly to prevent disease. Immunizations are not medicines to treat a disease, but to prevent it from being contracted in the first place.
Blood thinners—Patients at risk for blood clots that can cause stroke, heart attacks, or pulmonary embolisms are given blood thinners. Whether the risk is temporary following a surgical procedure, or because of a period of immobilization, or for patients at high-risk for heart attack, doctors will prescribe blood thinners to minimize the risk of dangerous blood clots. Follow your doctor’s recommended dosage.
Hand washing—Washing our hands does more than just clean off grime or stickiness. We wash our hands to prevent disease. There’s a direct correlation between hand washing and disease prevention. This by definition is prophylaxis.
Is it beneficial?
There is risk with every choice: antibiotics sometimes have uncomfortable side-effects, and hand washing can cause dry skin. However, there is ample evidence that the benefits far outweigh the risks.
Back to the Flu
Let’s return to the earlier example. Tamiflu, 75mg taken twice a day is the treatment for the flu. But, if you have been exposed to someone who has been diagnosed with the flu during the first 24 hours of their symptoms, it is recommended that you take one 75mg pill once per day even before showing symptoms.