Flu may seem common this time of year but don’t let that fool you; “common” doesn’t mean no cause for concern. Flu is a serious—sometimes deadly—illness, but we have a powerful weapon to combat it and reduce its impact. Vaccine expert Dr. Nancy M. Bennett sheds light on the severity of the illness, common misconceptions and the return of the nasal flu vaccine.
We saw a record-breaking number of deaths from the flu last year, but it is serious every year. The length of illness (symptoms last at least a week for most people) and the respiratory complications that can develop afterward make it critical to seek medical care, including testing and treatment. This is especially true for the very young, elderly, and those with pre-existing health problems like asthma, lung disease, heart disease, diabetes or cancer.
Misinformation about flu seems to spread faster than the illness itself. Let’s sort out some facts from the fiction:
FICTION: Getting the flu shot makes you sick.
FACT: When you get the flu shot, your body mounts its natural immune response to the vaccine, so it is typical to have pain or soreness at the injection site and, in rare cases, a mild fever.
If you find yourself very sick after getting the vaccine it is more than likely coincidental. Many viruses besides flu are circulating at this time of year and the vaccine cannot give you the flu.
FICTION: The vaccine doesn’t work.
FACT: Some people believe that the vaccine must not be working because people are still coming down with the flu. As the basis of each year’s vaccine, infectious disease specialists, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), do their best to predict which flu strains will be most common. Even when it’s not a perfect match, if you are vaccinated and do get the flu, it’s likely that your symptoms will be milder and you will recover more quickly than if you hadn’t gotten the shot. Even in a year when the vaccine has lower effectiveness, it prevents millions of illnesses, tens of thousands of hospitalizations and thousands of deaths.
FICTION: I’m not experiencing nausea or vomiting, so I don’t have the flu.
FACT: These are not typical symptoms of the flu. Respiratory symptoms, a high fever and significant body aches are much more common. Only a flu test can confirm if you truly have the flu; however, your doctor may also diagnose it based on clinical symptoms alone. If you do have the flu, antiviral treatment (such as Tamiflu) can be prescribed by your doctor and may help lessen the duration and severity of your illness.
When it comes to when to get your flu shot, the time is now. It takes about two weeks to build your immunity to the virus. However, getting vaccinated later in the season is still effective, and if you get the flu without having had the shot, you can still be vaccinated to protect yourself from possible re-infection.
And if fear of getting a shot is what’s keeping you away, there’s good news: The CDC included the nasal-spray vaccine among its recommended options again this year. The spray is approved for use in non-pregnant individuals, ages 2 through 49.