The best way to prevent seasonal flu is by getting a flu vaccination every year.
Influenza, commonly called “the flu,” is caused by a group of viruses called influenza viruses. They infect the nose, throat and lungs (respiratory tract).
The flu can have life-threatening complications in many people. Every year in the United States it is believed that between five and 20 percent of people get the flu. Every year, over 150,000 people will be hospitalized from the flu, and approximately 5,000 people will die from the flu, although the total can vary from year to year with a recorded low of 3,000 deaths and a record high of 49,000 deaths.
Flu vaccines protect against the influenza viruses that research indicates will be most common during the upcoming season. Everyone six months and older should get vaccinated against the flu every year. Get vaccinated soon after vaccine becomes available in your community, ideally by October. Immunity sets in about two weeks after vaccination.
What are flu symptoms?
Symptoms of the flu tend to come on suddenly and can include fever, chills, muscle aches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, cough, sore throat, runny nose, stuffy nose, headaches and fatigue.
When is flu season?
In the United States, the peak flu season is November through March.
How does the flu spread?
It is transmitted by coming into contact with the respiratory droplets from the coughs and sneezes of a person with the flu.
Do I need to get the flu vaccine every year?
The influenza viruses can change yearly, so you will need a new vaccine every year. It is always a challenge for doctors and scientists to predict the exact strain of the flu that will be coming the following year to prepare the vaccine. They get it right most of the time, and that is why the vaccine is 70 percent and not 100 percent effective.
Even if the virus hasn’t changed too much, the antibodies your immune system has produced from previous vaccinations will decrease over time. So for the best protection, a yearly flu shot is best.
Can the flu be treated?
Yes. There are several very good medicines to treat the flu as well as symptomatic treatments. Check with your doctor to see what is best for you.
Who should get the flu shot?
The Centers of Disease Control recommends yearly flu vaccinations for everyone over the age of six months. The flu shot is especially important for women who are pregnant, young children and older people. Some younger children may need two shots, so check with your doctor.
Also, people with chronic medical conditions such as cancer, receiving cancer treatments, asthma, lung disease, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, overweight, HIV/AIDS, kidney disease or liver disease are at increased risk for developing complications from the flu. It can take up to two weeks for full protection after receiving the vaccination. Discuss with your doctor to see if the flu vaccination is right for you.
How is the flu vaccination administered?
The flu vaccine comes in two forms: a shot for people ages six months to 64 years and a flu mist for those two to 49 years of age.
The shot has parts of a virus or a killed virus and can’t give anyone with a weak immune system the flu. The flu mist has a live weakened virus in it. There are several differences between the shot and the mist, so check with your doctor to see what type of vaccination is best for you. Also, if you are allergic to eggs or have had a reaction to a previous flu vaccination, check with your doctor before getting a flu vaccination.
Remember, don’t forget to use good hygiene habits to prevent the transmission of colds and flu. Regularly wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.
The flu vaccination is not perfect, but it will reduce your chances of getting the flu by 70 percent or more. The best time to get a vaccination is when it becomes available, but anytime during the flu season is good.
Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD is a board certified dermatologist and Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He also has a private practice in Eagan, MN. He has been selected as one of the top 10 dermatologists in the U.S. by Black Enterprise magazine and one of the top 21 African American physicians in the U.S. by the Atlanta Post. Dr. Crutchfield is an active member of the Minnesota Association of Black Physicians, MABP.org.