By Katherine Howard, MD, Resident Physician
The kids are back at school, and it’s time for apple picking, all things pumpkin-spice, changing leaves, sweaters, and the start of cold season. And with cold season comes influenza season, also known as the flu.
What is the flu? It is a respiratory illness caused by the influenza virus, which often causes fever, cough, congestion, fatigue, body aches, headache, and generally feeling pretty rotten. It is different from a common cold, and symptoms are more intense. It lasts several days to less than two weeks, and can range from mild to severe illness. Any flu infection can carry a risk of serious complications, including pneumonia, sinus infections, dehydration, worsening of chronic conditions, inflammation of the heart, brain or muscle, multi-organ failure, sepsis, and even death.
How do you get the flu? The flu is spread from person to person, through droplets when people with the virus cough, sneeze, or talk. It can travel about 6 feet from a person, and then can land in the mouths or noses of people nearby or be inhaled into the lungs. People are typically contagious about 24 hours before developing symptoms, and remain that way for up to 5-7 days after becoming sick.
How do I protect myself from getting influenza? The most important step to preventing the flu is to get a vaccination each year and before Thanksgiving is best. You should stay away from people who are sick. Wash your hands frequently, and keep your hands away from your mouth and face. When you are ill, cover your cough with your elbow and stay home from work or school to prevent spreading it to others.
Who needs a flu shot? Everyone! While anyone can get influenza and get severe flu illness, young children, adults aged 65 and older, pregnant women, and people with certain chronic medical conditions are at high risk of serious flu complications requiring hospitalization. Children can receive their first influenza vaccine at age 6 months, and will need 2 doses their first time to build a strong immunity.
How does the flu shot work? The flu shot is made from parts of the influenza virus. It shows your body what the virus looks like, so if you come in contact with the virus your body will recognize it and kill it before it makes you sick. Vaccination may make your illness milder if you do get sick from influenza. It only protects you against the influenza virus, and not the other viruses that can cause the common cold, or the bacterial, viruses, or parasites that can cause the “stomach flu.” Since it does not contain infectious virus, the vaccine cannot give you flu illness. People get the flu shot during cold season and can become ill with a variety of common cold viruses and confuse this with flu illness. The flu shot does not increase your risk of getting other common colds. The most common side effects of the flu shot are soreness at the injection site. This and other reactions to the shot are your body’s early immune response and can be signs of you developing immunity.
Why is the flu shot better some years than others? The flu mutates each year as it spreads around the globe and peaks here from December through March. The vaccine has to be updated each year to match the new virus causing the illness. Sometimes the virus mutates again, or the vaccine does not match the virus causing the most severe illness. However, in general the influenza vaccine reduces flu illness by 60% each year, and has more protection when more people are vaccinated.
Where can you get a flu shot? The flu shot is available starting around the beginning of September each year at clinics around the metro area. It is currently available at the United Family Practice clinic at any doctor appointment, or you can schedule a nurse only appointment. It is also available at most pharmacies in the area.
What do I do if I get influenza? There are antiviral drugs that can be used to treat flu illness. They are most effective when started within 2-3 days of developing symptoms. So if you believe you have contracted the flu, it is important to have a doctor’s appointment as soon as you can to get tested so you can get the treatment if you need it. Even if you received the vaccine, no treatment or vaccine is 100% effective so it is possible to get the flu, though you are likely to have milder illness and get well sooner.
Schedule your appointment today, and protect yourself, your family, and your community from influenza this season.