By Rebecca Tharaud, M.D.
Hallmark Health Medical Associates
Dr. Rebecca Tharaud
Ugghhh…the flu. Many of us have gone through it in the past, and none of us want to re-live that experience.
Every year we experience an influenza epidemic. It causes millions of illnesses, hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations, and thousands of deaths annually in the United States. Some years are worse than others, but it’s never something to take lightly.
“Flu season” starts in October and runs through May, but December, January, and February are usually the prime months when we see the most cases. Thankfully, unlike some other epidemics, we have a vaccine that can offer protection from the flu.
Getting the flu vaccine does not mean you have a 100 percent guarantee that you won’t get the flu. But it is the best protection available.
Below are answers to some of the most common questions my patients ask about the flu.
Can I get the flu from the flu shot?
This is a common myth. No, you cannot get the flu from the flu shot. It’s not possible because the vaccine contains an inactivated virus, not a live virus.
Some people may experience some mild side effects from the flu shot. The most common side effect is arm soreness. A low grade fever also is possible. These symptoms are similar to a few flu symptoms, which leads to some of the confusion.
Side effects are possible with any vaccine. This is because the vaccine triggers your body to generate antibodies, as if a virus was present, which increases your immunity. It’s quite uncommon for a person to experience significant side effects from the flu vaccine.
How do I know if I have the flu?
Sometimes it’s not easy to tell whether you have the flu or just a nasty cold. Both are caused by viruses, but influenza is much more serious. There are more complications and more deaths caused by the flu than by colds.
Influenza is a viral respiratory illness. Symptoms may include:
- Sore throat
- Runny nose
- Body aches
There are two symptoms that distinguish a flu from the common cold – fever and body aches. Most colds are not accompanied by a fever, so if you’re running a temperature, the chances are higher that it’s the flu. The same goes for body aches.
That being said, not everyone who gets the flu will have a fever or body aches.
In a classic case of the flu people will develop strong symptoms suddenly. Some of my patients have said, “I was fine, and then it felt like I was hit by a bus.”
When should I get a flu shot?
The flu epidemic doesn’t have an alarm clock – it doesn’t start on October 1 and end on May 31 like clockwork. It “hits” at a little different time every year.
The key is to get your flu shot before you might be exposed to someone with the flu. That’s most likely to happen in December, January, and February.
Keep in mind, however, that it takes two weeks for the flu vaccine to reach its full effectiveness after it has been administered. In other words, you won’t have maximum protection from the flu until two weeks after you get the vaccine. This is a good reminder – get your vaccine early. The earlier the better.
Who is most at risk for the flu?
Influenza can affect anyone, but some people are more at risk for serious complications should they develop the flu. We strongly recommend that these groups of people receive the flu vaccine every year.
- People over age 65
- People with chronic conditions, such as asthma
- People with heart disease or congestive heart failure
- Young children, especially under the age of 5
- Pregnant women
Pregnant women should receive the flu vaccine for a couple reasons. First, pregnant women are more vulnerable to the flu and are more likely to become very sick if they get it. Second, when a pregnant woman gets the flu vaccine, it offers protection for her and her baby that continues even after the baby is born. This is very important, because babies under 6 months old cannot receive the flu vaccine.
If a newborn were to get the flu, it would most likely result in a hospital visit, and that’s a scary thing for any parent.
If you think you may have the flu, avoid contact with others, especially anyone in the most-at-risk groups above.
How can I avoid the flu?
The best way to avoid the flu is to get the flu vaccine every year, as soon as it’s available. If you don’t, you’re really taking an unnecessary risk.
Aside from the vaccine, there are a couple other ways to protect yourself from the flu. The flu virus is transmitted mostly by coughing, sneezing, or sharing drinks. Hopefully those around you have gotten the flu vaccine, but if they haven’t, it’s a good idea to understand how these germs spread.
It would be nice if germs were visible, but they’re not. Hand-washing and the use of hand sanitizers are very important. Also, avoid touching your mouth or eyes.
How long does the flu last?
Most people who get the flu will experience symptoms for about a week. Sometimes symptoms can linger up to two weeks. You should feel significantly better after one week.
If you come down with the flu, the best things you can do are:
- Drink lots of water
- Take Tylenol for fever and body aches
- Avoid contact with others
Unfortunately, there is no cure for the flu, but there are medications you can take, such as Tamiflu, to reduce the intensity of the symptoms. We prescribe Tamiflu for patients in high-risk groups and others who have been sick for less than 48 hours.
Are you due for a flu vaccine? Call us at (855) HHMA-DOC (1-855-446-2362) or schedule an appointment online.