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Flu Season: The Basics

Fall is officially here! The weather is cooler, the leaves are more colorful, and this year’s flu season has already began. Your time should be spent picking out the biggest pumpkin or choosing the best Halloween costume, not sick with the flu. Below are some common questions with answers about the virus, how to prevent it, and why it is critical that you get your annual flu shot. We want you to enjoy this fall season happy and healthy!

What is the flu?

The “flu” is a respiratory illness caused by different types of influenza viruses. People with the virus can experience fever, chills, headaches, body aches, runny or stuffy nose, cough, sore throat, or even vomiting and diarrhea.

Is it contagious?

Yes. The virus spreads by respiratory droplets in the air from coughing, sneezing, or by coming into contact with contaminated surfaces. A person with the flu is most likely to spread the virus in the first 3-4 days of being sick, but some people can be contagious a day BEFORE symptoms appear.

How do you treat it?

If you are diagnosed with the flu soon after symptoms appear, anti-viral drugs may be prescribed to shorten the amount of time you are sick. Antibiotics are not effective because the flu is caused by a virus, not bacteria. Most treatment for the flu involves relieving symptoms such as fever, cough, and headache.

When is flu season?

Flu season is the time of year when people are most likely to get sick from the virus. It begins in October, peaks between December and February, and can last until May. The CDC recommends everyone over the age of 6 months get their flu vaccine before the end of October, if possible. Getting the flu shot after this is still recommended as it still provides protection against the virus.

It’s just the flu. How sick can I get?

It is possible that getting sick with the flu can simply cause you to feel lousy for a few days. However, for some people (children, the elderly, those with other chronic illnesses), the flu can be much more severe.

During the flu season of October 2017 – April 2018, over 30,000 people were hospitalized due to having the flu and more than half of them were 65 years old or older. During that same flu season, 186 children died from the virus; about 80% of those kids were not vaccinated.

What can I do to keep from getting sick?

Getting your annual flu shot is the single best way to keep from getting sick with the flu. The CDC recommends everyone age 6 months or older receive an annual flu shot. It is also important to avoid people you think may have the flu, wash your hands often, and cover your nose or mouth when coughing or sneezing.

Myth, I’ve gotten the flu shot before and it gave me the flu.

The flu shot cannot cause you to get the flu. Vaccines are currently made in two ways: either with 1) viruses that have been killed (inactivated) and are therefore not infectious or 2) proteins from a weakened (attenuated) virus and therefore cannot cause the flu. Getting the flu shot can cause you to have a low-grade fever or mild body aches which are short-lasting and milder than if you got sick from the flu. The nasal spray form of the vaccine can cause some mild symptoms such as low-grade fever, cough, or runny nose. Again, these symptoms are much milder than having the flu.

I got my flu vaccine, but I still got sick with the flu.

It is possible to still get the flu even if you have been vaccinated. This can occur for multiple reasons:

  1. You may have been exposed to another type of virus that causes similar symptoms to the flu. The flu vaccine does not protect against these types of viruses.
  2. You may have been exposed to the flu virus shortly before your vaccination or in the two weeks after being vaccinated that it takes for it to become most effective.
  3. Each year’s flu shot protects against the most common types of influenza viruses. It is possible that the flu virus causing your symptoms is not one of the types protected against by the vaccine.
  4. Some older people and people with certain chronic illnesses have weaker immune systems and, despite being vaccinated, may still develop the flu. Studies have shown that receiving the flu shot still benefits these people as their illnesses are often less severe.

Flu vaccination is not a perfect, but it is the best way to protect against flu infection. Most adults and children over the age of 6 months are eligible to receive the flu vaccine and should ask their primary care doctor about protecting themselves and their loved ones this flu season!