Just in time for the holidays, it’s flu season again. Influenza is a common illness every winter, infecting 5% to 20% of our population depending on the year. That makes it one of the most important public health issues affecting Americans. Many people have questions about influenza. Below are answers to some of the most common questions asked by our patients.

What is the flu?

Influenza is a viral illness. It is spread from person to person when someone coughs on you or by touching infected surfaces like doorknobs, light switches or telephones. Infected persons can be contagious for 1 full day before they have any symptoms and as long as 10 days after symptoms start. While people sometimes talk about “stomach flu,” true influenza is a primarily a respiratory illness. It includes the following symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Body aches
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose and nasal congestion
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Sometimes vomiting and diarrhea. This is more common in children than adults.

Is the flu really so bad?

Influenza tends to be worse and last longer than most cold viruses. Most people will feel really bad for about 7-10 days. Often, children are unable to attend school or daycare for an entire week. Some people with the flu will develop secondary complications like ear infections, sinus infections, pneumonia or dehydration. These complications usually can be treated in your doctor’s office and with medicine at home but some people require hospitalization. Every year in the US, about 25,000-35,000 people die from complications of influenza.

The flu is only dangerous for old or sick persons, right?

Wrong! Many of the people who get serious complications from influenza are otherwise healthy individuals. The flu is particularly tragic because it can cause a healthy, active child or adult to quickly develop life threatening illness. In fact, about 10% of deaths due to influenza occur in people less than 65 years of age. It is true that some groups of people are especially at risk like children under 3 years of age and pregnant woman.

How can I reduce my chances of getting influenza this winter?

The best way to prevent influenza is to get your flu vaccine every year as soon as it is available. While the vaccination cannot provide 100% protection, vaccinated individuals are much less likely to develop the flu. Even if they do get influenza, vaccinated persons usually do not get as sick or stay as sick as long as unvaccinated persons. They are also much less likely to develop severe complications. In fact, vaccinated children are 74% less likely to be admitted to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit than unvaccinated children.

Other means of prevention include:

  • Wash your hands prior to eating, after using the restroom and often throughout the day
  • Try to stay away from people who are known to have the flu
  • Teach children to cough into their elbows and avoid touching their faces or putting their fingers in their mouths

How effective is the influenza vaccine?

Recent studies show that flu vaccine can reduce the risk of flu illness by 50-60% in the general population in most years. It is true that the effectiveness of the flu vaccine can differ from year to year. However, research also shows that individuals who get their flu vaccine every year are less likely to develop influenza in a given season that persons who only got the vaccine that year.

Even if the flu vaccine does not match a certain circulating strain of the virus that is common that year, it can still give you good protection against other strains included in the vaccine. Most years, more than one type of strain circulates in the community in a single season. Here at Triangle Pediatrics, it is very clear to our physicians that most of the children that come to see us because they are really sick with influenza have not had the vaccine that year.

Is the flu vaccine safe?

Physicians and researchers in the United States agree that the flu vaccine is safe. The flu vaccine has been in use in the United States for over 50 years and hundreds of millions of Americans have received it over this time. However, like all vaccines or medicines, some side effects may occur is a few patients. Different side effects are seen depending on whether you received the flu shot or the nasal mist vaccine. Compared with the symptoms of influenza, these side effects are mild and pass within 1-3 day.

Some people who experience these symptoms think the flu vaccine “gave” them the flu. However, the flu shot contains only killed virus and the nasal flu vaccine contains only weakened strains of the virus. The flu shot does not give people the flu. Some the confusion about this occurs because people can become infected with the flu around the time they received the vaccine. Also, no expects that the vaccine may begin to protect you immediately or be 100% effective.

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 may occur are:

  • Soreness, redness, or swelling where the shot was given
  • Fever (low grade)
  • Aches

The nasal spray: The viruses in the nasal spray vaccine are weakened and do not cause the severe symptoms often associated with influenza illness. In children, side effects from the nasal spray may include:

  • Runny nose
  • Wheezing
  • Headache
  • Vomiting
  • Muscle aches
  • Fever

The Bottom Line: We want every patient to get the flu vaccine every year. Our doctors protect themselves and their families from the flu by getting vaccinated and we want to protect you as well. If your children have not already received the flu vaccine, please call us to schedule an appointment.