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Facts About the Flu - April 2017
The flu is an infection of the respiratory tract caused
by the influenza virus. It usually causes mild to severe illness, but sometimes
it can cause fatal complications.
A person who has the flu often feels some or all of these
- Fever and/or chills
- Cough and/or sore throat
- Nasal congestion
- Muscle or body aches
- Stomach ailments such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea
(more common in children than adults)
How the Flu is Spread
The flu spreads primarily when someone coughs, sneezes or
talks, allowing the virus to become airborne and then infect other people. It
can also spread if a healthy individual touches a surface that was previously touched
by an infected person, and then the healthy individual touches his or her own
mouth, eyes or nose. People are typically contagious from the day before
symptoms start until seven days after symptoms appear.
The timing of the flu virus is very unpredictable and can
vary from season to season. Flu activity most commonly peaks in the United
States between December and February; however, seasonal flu activity can begin
as early as October and continue as late as May.
If You Get the Flu
If you contract the flu, it is important to take good
care of yourself. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
recommends the following:
- Stay home from work! It’s your best chance for recovery,
and you will avoid spreading the disease to others.
- Get sufficient sleep.
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Take over-the-counter (OTC) medications appropriate for
- Most people do not need medical care, but consult your
doctor if you are concerned. Also, seek immediate medical attention if you have
any of the warning signs discussed on the next page.
Serious complications can arise from the flu, including
bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections, dehydration and
worsening of chronic medical conditions. This is why it is crucial to prevent contracting
the virus in the first place.
These simple steps should be taken in order to avoid the
- Get a yearly flu
vaccine. It is the most important step in protecting against the virus. Flu
vaccines are needed on a yearly basis because the body’s immune response to a vaccination
declines over time and because flu viruses are constantly mutating.
- Take preventive
actions. Cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough. Try to avoid close
contact with sick people and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Wash
your hands often or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Take antiviral
drugs if your doctor recommends them. These are prescription drugs that
fight the flu by keeping the viruses from reproducing in your body.
- Maintain a healthy
immune system by eating healthy food, exercising, getting adequate sleep,
controlling your stress level and avoiding smoking.
Occasionally, the flu can cause serious medical
complications. It is important to seek immediate medical treatment if someone
with the flu displays any of these signs.
In children, emergency warning signs include:
- Fast breathing (or difficulty breathing)
- Bluish skin color
- Not drinking enough fluids
- Not waking up or interacting with people
- Being so irritable the child does not want to be touched
- Flu-like symptoms improve, but then return with a fever
and a worse cough
- Fever with a rash
In adults, emergency warning signs are:
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
- Sudden dizziness
- Severe or persistent vomiting
- Flu-like symptoms that improve, but then return with a
fever and a worse cough
The CDC recommends yearly flu shots for all individuals
over six months of age. Vaccination is especially important for people who are
at high risk for serious flu complications, such as young children, pregnant
women, people with chronic medical conditions and people 65 years and older. While
there are many different flu viruses, the seasonal flu vaccine is designed to
protect against the main flu viruses that research suggests will cause the greatest
spread of illness during the upcoming flu season; however, it is still possible
to become ill from a strain of influenza not included in the vaccine. Even so, antibodies
from a vaccination of one flu virus can sometimes provide protection against
different but related viruses, and all recipients of a flu vaccine will be
protected from the two main A-strains of flu, which are generally considered
the most dangerous.
There are several flu vaccine options, which
will greatly expand flu shot choices for people who would otherwise be
ineligible to receive a vaccination. The offerings include a four-strain
vaccine and nasal spray; a high-dose three-strain flu shot; two egg-free
versions; and a shot that does not go beneath the skin.
All vaccines protect against both Type A strains of
influenza (H1N1 and H3N2), as well as a Type B strain. The four-strain, or
quadrivalent, vaccine protects against both strains of Type B as well as the
Type A strains. It has been difficult in the past to predict which B strain
would become dominant in a given season, so the quadrivalent vaccine protects
Additionally, a high-dose flu shot containing four times the
usual dosage is offered to older adults and other people with weakened immune
systems as a way of boosting their bodies’ responses to the virus.
Finally, people with an aversion to needles can choose to
receive a “microneedle” version of the vaccine that is applied to the skin
instead of the arm muscle.
Different flu shots are approved for people of different
ages; there are even flu shots that are approved for use in people as young as six
months of age. For many vaccine recipients, more than one type or brand of
vaccine may be appropriate. Where more than one type of vaccine is appropriate
and available, no preferential recommendation is made by the CDC for use of any
influenza vaccine product over another. If you have questions about which
vaccine is best for you, talk to your doctor or another health care provider.
Contrary to popular belief, you cannot contract the flu
from the flu vaccine—but sometimes side effects mimic those of the flu, such as
a headache, low fever and/or nasal congestion. However, these will only persist
for a maximum of 24 hours.
These people should NOT get a flu vaccine without first
consulting their physician:
- Those who have had a severe reaction or have developed
Guillain-Barre syndrome within six weeks of getting an influenza vaccination;
- Children under six months of age.