Influenza, more commonly referred to as the flu, is a contagious respiratory illness, spread by a virus. It causes a miserable but relatively mild illness in most people. For most of us, getting the flu means a couple of weeks out of work or school, then life goes back to normal. But for others, the flu is a severe illness. Young children and the elderly are at the greatest risk for the flu and its complications. The flu can be more serious, even deadly, if you have a health condition like asthma, heart disease, diabetes, a weakened immune system or HIV.
That’s why the CDC recommends that everyone aged 6 months or older receives an influenza vaccine every year, by the end of October, if possible. However, significant seasonal influenza virus activity can continue into May, so vaccination later in the season can still be beneficial.
And while it’s true this year’s flu vaccine is estimated to be only about 34-percent effective in lab tests, it should be noted that even if you get the flu after receiving the vaccine, you’re likely to have a less-severe case, and less likely to suffer complications like pneumonia.
This year’s flu season got off to an early start and it’s looking particularly bad with 14,000 new flu cases reported last week, bringing the total for the season to more than 74,000.
And pediatric deaths are on the rise. The dominant flu virus out there is one we call H3N2 — it’s a more-severe type of flu that tends to put more people in the hospital and cause more deaths than other common flu bugs.
Eighty percent of people who came down with the flu this year did not get vaccinated. Given that startling statistic, I’d like to address an all-too-common and widely spread myth that likely keeps some folks from getting a flu shot: The flu shot cannot give you the flu. Flu vaccines given with a needle are currently made in two ways: from flu vaccine viruses that have been “inactivated” and are therefore not infectious, or with no flu vaccine viruses at all (recombinant influenza vaccine). It’s true that after getting a flu shot, some people suffer some common side effects such as soreness, redness, tenderness or swelling where the shot was given, low-grade fever, headache and muscle aches. But those are not the flu.
Whether you’ve received the flu vaccine or not, you can use good hygiene to create a barrier against flu germs: Wash your hands with warm water and soap every time you shake hands or touch a surface that might be germ-covered; carry an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with you for times when you can’t get to a sink; carry disinfectant wipes with you to clean any surfaces you’re about to touch; take extra care to not touch your mouth, eyes or nose without washing your hands first.
Remember, flu season peaks in February and can continue into May. So your best course of action for prevention is to get a flu shot as soon as possible.
Dr. Nancy Brisbon is the medical director of Mazzoni Center. To learn more about Mazzoni Center’s Health services, visit https://www.mazzonicenter.org/health-care.