The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death. The best way to prevent the flu is by gettinga flu vaccination each year.
Every year in the United States, on average:
5% to 20% of the population gets the flu;
more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu complications, and;
about 36,000 people die from flu.
Some people, such as older people, young children, and people with certain health conditions, are at high risk for serious flu complications.
Symptoms of flu include:
– fever (usually high)
– extreme tiredness
– dry cough
– sore throat
– runny or stuffy nose
– muscle aches
Stomach symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, also can occur but are more common in children than adults
Complications of Flu
Complications of flu can include bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections, dehydration, and worsening of chronic medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma, or diabetes.
Fortunately, there are several things you can do to lessen your chances of getting sick. Epi Mazzei, R.N., manager of the LungLine toll-free helpline at National Jewish, recommends the following:
Wash your hands frequently. Since your hands are the most common vehicle for carrying germs into your body, you should scrub vigorously with soap and water for 10-15 seconds to keep them as germ-free as possible. Wash after using the bathroom, before handling food, before eating, and any other time you think you might have picked up germs.
Avoid touching your nose, eyes and mouth. You can’t keep all the germs off your hands all the time. So, keep your hands away from germs’ most common entryway into the body.
Cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing. Don’t spread your germs to others.
Use disposable tissue. And wipe your nose in a way that keeps secretions on the tissue and doesn’t contaminate your hands.
Get a yearly flu vaccine. This is especially important for people with asthma and other respiratory diseases.
The single best way to protect against the flu is to get vaccinated each year.
There are two types of vaccines:
– The “flu shot”-an inactivated vaccine (containing killed virus) that is given with a needle,usually in the arm. The flu shot is approved for use in people older than 6 months, including healthy people and people with chronic medical conditions.
– The nasal-spray flu vaccine – a vaccine made with live, weakened flu viruses that do not cause the flu (sometimes called LAIV for “live attenuated influenza vaccine” or FluMist). LAIV (FluMist) is approved for use in healthy* people 2-49 years of age who are not pregnant. Each vaccine contains three influenza viruses-one A (H3N2) virus, one A (H1N1) virus, and one B virus. The viruses in the vaccine change each year based on international surveillance and scientists’ estimations about which types and strains of viruses will circulate in a given year.
About 2 weeks after vaccination, antibodies that provide protection against influenza virus infection develop in the body.
When to Get Vaccinated
October or November is the best time to get vaccinated, but you can still get vaccinated in December and later. Flu season can begin as early as October and last as late as May.
Who Should Get Vaccinated
In general, anyone who wants to reduce their chances of getting the flu can get vaccinated. However, it is recommended by ACIP that certain people should get vaccinated each year. They are either people who are at high risk of having serious flu complications or people who live with or care for those at high risk for serious complications.
People who should get vaccinated each year are people at high risk for complications from the flu, including:
– Children aged 6 months until their 5th birthday,
– Pregnant women,
– People 50 years of age and older, and
– People of any age with certain chronic medical conditions;
– People who live in nursing homes and other long term care facilities.
People who live with or care for those at high risk for complications from flu, including:
– Household contacts of persons at high risk for complications from the flu (see above)
– Household contacts and out of home caregivers of children less than 6 months of age (these children are too young to be vaccinated)
– Healthcare workers.
Use of the Nasal Spray Flu Vaccine
It should be noted that vaccination with the nasal-spray flu vaccine is always an option for healthy people 2-49 years of age* who are not pregnant.
Who Should Not Be Vaccinated
There are some people who should not be vaccinated without first consulting aphysician. These include:
– People who have a severe allergy to chicken eggs.
– People who have had a severe reaction to an influenza vaccination in the past.
– People who developed Guillain-Barr syndrome (GBS) within 6 weeks of getting an influenza vaccine previously.
– Influenza vaccine is not approved for use in children less than 6 months of age.
– People who have a moderate or severe illness with a fever should wait to get vaccinated until their symptoms lessen.
The ability of flu vaccine to protect a person depends on the age and health status of the person getting the vaccine, and the similarity or “match” between the virus strains in the vaccine and those in circulation. Testing has shown that both the flu shot and the nasal-spray vaccine are effective at preventing the flu.
Vaccine Side Effects (What to Expect)
Different side effects can be associated with the flu shot and LAIV.
The flu shot: The viruses in the flu shot are killed (inactivated), so you cannot get the flu from a flu shot. Some minor side effects that could occur are
Soreness, redness, or swelling where the shot was given
Fever (low grade)
If these problems occur, they begin soon after the shot and usually last 1 to 2 days. Almost all people who receive influenza vaccine have no serious problems from it. However, on rare occasions, flu vaccination can cause serious problems, such as severe allergic reactions.
The viruses in the nasal-spray vaccine are weakened and do not cause severe symptoms often associated with influenza illness. (In clinical studies, transmission of vaccine viruses to close contacts has occurred only rarely.)
In children, side effects from LAIV (FluMist) can include
In adults, side effects from LAIV (FluMist) can include