Gearing Up for Flu Season

As we head into the middle of September, it is not too early to start thinking about getting your annual flu shot. There are many myths and misconceptions about the flu, so here are some basic facts and recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Q & A style:

What exactly is the flu?

The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat, and sometimes the lungs. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death. (Contrary to public opinion, it is not “just a bad cold.”)

 

What are the most common flu symptoms?

Flu symptoms often come on very suddenly. People who have the flu often feel some or all of these symptoms:

  • fever (although not everyone with the flu will have one)
  • cough
  • sore throat
  • runny or stuffy nose
  • body aches
  • headache
  • chills
  • fatigue
  • sometimes diarrhea and vomiting

The time from when a person is exposed and infected with flu to when symptoms begin is about 2 days but can range from about 1 to 4 days.

 

How might I get sick with the flu?

The flu virus is typically spread through tiny droplets made when people with the flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby. Less often, a person might get infected by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose or possibly their eyes.

 

What can I do to prevent getting sick with the flu?

The best form of prevention is to get a flu vaccine (shot) each year. The flu vaccine has been shown to reduce flu-related illnesses and the risk of serious flu complications that can result in hospitalization or even death. The flu virus strains change every year, which is why individuals need to get vaccinated every flu season.

The other recommendations are to avoid people who are sick, cover coughs and sneezes, and wash your hands frequently to help slow the spread of germs that cause the flu and other illnesses.

 

Should everyone get a flu shot?

The general recommendation is that everyone 6 months of age and older should get a flu shot every season. Vaccination is particularly important for people who are at high risk of serious complications from influenza, such as:

  • Children younger than 5, but especially children younger than 2 years old
  • Adults 65 years of age and older
  • Pregnant women (and women up to two weeks postpartum)
  • Residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities
  • Individuals with chronic health conditions such as asthma, heart disease, and chronic lung disease among others

There are some individuals who should not receive the flu shot, including:

  • Children younger than 6 months are too young to get a flu shot
  • People with severe, life-threatening allergies to flu vaccine or any ingredient in the vaccine such as gelatin, antibiotics, or other ingredients

Individuals with the following conditions should discuss the risks and benefits of flu vaccination with their provider:

  • If you have an allergy to eggs or any of the ingredients in the vaccine
  • If you ever had Guillain-Barré Syndrome (a severe paralyzing illness, also called GBS). Some people with a history of GBS should not get this vaccine

Bottom line: if you have questions about whether or not you should get the flu shot, talk to your doctor or other healthcare professional.

 

Can getting the flu shot give you the flu?

No, a flu shot cannot cause flu illness. Flu shots are currently made in two ways: with flu viruses that have been ‘inactivated’ and are therefore not infectious, or with no flu viruses at all. The most common side effects from the influenza shot are soreness, redness, tenderness or swelling where the shot was given. Low-grade fever, headache and muscle aches also may occur.

Some people may still get the flu even after getting a shot. This can happen for a few reasons:

  • It is possible they were exposed to the flu virus shortly before getting vaccinated or during the two-week period after vaccination that it takes the body to develop immune protection. Thus, the person could become ill with the flu before protection from the vaccine takes effect.

 

  • They may have been exposed to a flu virus strain that is different from the virus strains selected for the vaccine each year. Although vaccine manufacturers strive to produce vaccines that have the best “match” between the strains selected to make the vaccine and those spreading and causing illness, there are many different flu virus strains and an exact match is not always possible.

 

  • People can become ill from other respiratory viruses besides the flu, which may cause symptoms similar to the flu even when it is not the flu. The flu vaccine only protects against influenza, not other illnesses.

 

The good news is that even if you get the flu after being vaccinated, it typically leads to a milder case if you do get sick. In addition, getting vaccinated yourself also protects people around you, like babies and young children, older people, and people with certain chronic health conditions.

 

When should I get the flu shot?

The key is to get a flu shot before flu begins spreading in your community. It takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies that protect against flu to develop in the body; thus, the CDC recommends that people get a flu shot by the end of October. However, it can still be beneficial to get vaccinated anytime throughout the flu season, even into January or later.

 

Where can I get a flu shot?

Flu shots are offered in many doctors’ offices, urgent care clinics, health departments, pharmacies and college health centers, as well as by many employers, and even in some schools. If you don’t have a regular doctor, you can get a flu vaccine somewhere else, like a health department, pharmacy, urgent care clinic, and often your school, college health center, or workplace.

To find a flu shot near you, visit the Flu Vaccine Finder (you may need to scroll down the page to see it).

 

What should I do if I do get the flu?

If you do get sick with the flu, antiviral drugs may be a treatment option. Check with your doctor promptly if you believe you have flu symptoms.  When used for treatment, antiviral drugs can lessen symptoms and shorten the time you are sick by 1 or 2 days. They also can prevent serious flu complications, like pneumonia.

In addition, if you get sick with flu symptoms, you should stay home and avoid contact with other people as much as possible. The CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone (without the need to use a fever-reducing medicine). If you must leave home, for example to get medical care, wear a facemask if you have one, or cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue. Remember to wash your hands often to keep from spreading the flu to others.

For more information about the flu and how to protect yourself, please visit the CDC website.

Prevention and Intervention – Focus on the Flu Vaccine

The outer ring of the Wheel of Health focuses on Professional Care, which is just as important as the areas of self-care I have discussed in previous posts. Maintaining optimal health includes seeking routine preventive medical care such as annual physical exams, recommended cancer screenings (e.g., mammogram, colonoscopy) and vaccinations.

You can find the latest recommendations for adult preventive care on the US Preventive Services Task Force website.  I highly encourage you to review the recommendations for your age and sex and discuss them with your healthcare provider. However, there is one recommendation I want to focus on for this post and that is the annual influenza vaccination, better known as the flu shot.

As a public health professional, I am often befuddled by the level of disagreement over getting vaccinated against the flu. I see friends debating it on Facebook. Some get the shot every year, others have never gotten it and never will. I have had friendly debates within my own family about the importance of annual vaccination. I agree with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s recommendation which is routine annual influenza vaccination for all persons aged ≥6 months who do not have contraindications. That last part is important – there are some individuals who cannot and should not receive the vaccination. But for most of us, there is no reason not to take this simple step to protect yourself from a potentially serious and sometimes fatal illness.

If you have any access to mainstream media, you are likely very aware of the toll that the flu has taken on communities across the country this year. This flu season is the worst in nearly a decade and we are not out of the woods yet.  Children and adults alike are getting sick, being hospitalized and dying – yes, dying – from the flu and its complications. I know several people who have had the flu and developed pneumonia, requiring hospital stays and heavy-duty antibiotics in order to recover.

I know there are some myths and incorrect beliefs circulating about the flu shot. Some people think they will get the flu if they are vaccinated (they won’t – if they get sick, they were likely exposed before they received the vaccine). Others argue that it is not worth getting vaccinated if the vaccine is not a good match to the virus strains that are circulating. It is difficult to get an exact match of the virus strain each season, as vaccine production must begin months before the flu virus presents itself. However, even if the vaccine is not an exact or even a good match, getting vaccinated will help reduce the risk of flu-associated complications that often require hospitalization. It can also make your illness milder if you do get sick.

Some people claim that they have never gotten the flu shot and have never gotten the flu, thus, they believe they are not susceptible. The flaw in that argument is that the flu virus strain changes every year so it’s likely they will eventually be exposed to a strain that does cause them to fall ill – especially if they decline to be vaccinated. That is why annual vaccination against the flu is so important. The flu is not simply a “bad cold” that someone can weather through. It is a serious illness that should not be taken lightly.

If you’re still not convinced to get vaccinated for your own protection, please consider doing so to protect the people around you, including those who are more vulnerable to serious flu illness, like babies and young children, older people, and people with certain chronic health conditions. If you haven’t yet been vaccinated and are now willing to do so, it’s not too late. I encourage you to act fast though as flu shots are running low due to the heavy flu season.  You can use the Flu Vaccine Finder tool on the CDC website to see where vaccine is still available in your area. The flu vaccine is typically covered by most health insurance plans and many pharmacies offer the flu shot at reduced cost for those who don’t have insurance.

For more information about the flu and how to protect yourself, please visit the CDC website.