What You Need to Know About the Flu and Flu Vaccine

What You Need to Know About the Flu and Flu Vaccine

Learn the facts: how it works, who should get it and what to expect this flu season.

Every year, 5% to 20% of Americans are expected to get the flu, also called influenza. The flu is definitely more dangerous than the common cold, and young children under 5 have a higher risk of serious complications from the flu.

Most adults can handle the temporary discomfort that comes with the shot, while parents may opt for the spray vaccine, a common alternative to the flu shot, for their kids. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics has updated their vaccination recommendations stating that the nasal spray vaccine isn’t recommended for kids for the 2016-2017 season. The reason? The spray vaccine doesn’t protect against the strains of the flu virus that have been most prominent in the last three years, reports The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

They found that the spray vaccine was only 3% effective for children ages 2 to 17, while the flu shot was 63% effective. The AAP also suggests that children over the age of six months get a flu shot every year. 

The flu vaccine is available each year and can provide protection against the virus in both kids and adults. We talked with Matthew Welter, MD, family practitioner at Cache Valley Medical Group and Cache Valley Hospital in Logan, Utah and family practitioner Preston Wilson, MD, at Lone Peak Hospital in Draper, Utah, to get the lowdown on the flu and what you need to know to stay well.

What type of flu season are you expecting to have this year?
Dr. Wilson: It is nearly impossible to predict the type of flu season we will have this year. Much of it depends on the accuracy of the flu vaccine in terms of how closely it resembles the flu strain that we will see this year.

Based purely on statistics, it is predicted that the flu vaccine decreases the impact of flu by 50% to 60% on an average year. There have been years when the flu vaccine did not resemble the flu strain and we saw a lot of flu with coverage as low as 10% to 20%. Other years, when the vaccine was on point, we saw much less flu activity. 

The good news is that the flu vaccine this year is a quadrivalent vaccine, which will protect against four strains of flu. It will also help our immune systems fight other viral strains.  

What is the flu and how is it different from the common cold? Is it really serious?
Dr. Welter: The flu is very serious. It’s a major killer around the world. It differs from a cold because of the severity of its symptoms—it leads to high fevers, body aches and respiratory symptoms. What makes the flu really dangerous is that while the immune system is busy fighting it off, other issues can sneak in. A fair amount of times, when you read about deaths from the flu, it’s often death from bacterial pneumonia that comes in right behind the flu when your body is already weakened.

How do I know if I have the flu or a cold?
Dr. Welter: Initially when the flu starts, it can seem like a cold—you may have a runny nose and just an all around yucky feeling. But, within a couple of days, it turns a lot worse and brings on muscle pains, a spike in fever and coughing. Children with the flu may also have nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. You’ll know when you have the flu. I have had the flu myself, and you usually feel like death and every muscle and joint in your body is aching.

What should I do if I think I have the flu?
Dr. Welter: See your doctor as soon as possible, especially if you have been around someone with the flu. If we are going to give medication for it, we have to do it earlier rather than later for it to work properly. Other than that, rest and stay hydrated until it runs its course. If you can’t keep fluids down and feel dehydrated, seek immediate medical care.

How can I protect myself from the flu?
Dr. Welter: Get the flu vaccine each year. Other common sense preventative measures include steering clear of anyone really sick and keeping your child home from school if you think they aren’t feeling well—the flu spreads like wildfire among kids. And of course, wash your hands often and cover your mouth when you cough.

Do I need to get vaccinated each year and why?
Dr. Welter: You do because flu strains change—there are thousands of strains of the flu. At the beginning of the season, researchers pick the strains that they think will be the most common. Last year’s flu vaccine may not protect you from what’s out there this year.

How effective is the vaccine?
Dr. Welter: According to the CDC, the vaccine may reduce the risk of flu illness by 50 to 60% if it’s the right strain. Most years, the strains that are going around are the ones included in the flu vaccine. But, occasionally, the vaccine is less effective. Last year people who got the flu vaccine could still get the flu because it targeted a different flu strain. But even when this happens, the vaccine still provides partial protection and could reduce the severity of the illness.

Can you get the flu from the flu vaccine?
Dr. Welter: Absolutely not—that is a huge misconception. It doesn’t incubate like that. If you’re feeling cruddy the next day, yes, that is probably a result of the flu vaccine, but that will be about the extent of it. You shouldn’t get a 104 degrees fever from it or anything like thatYou may just feel a little off the next day, but that will go away.

Is the vaccine only in the form of a shot?
Dr. Wilson: No. However, the injection is the only recommended vaccine according to the CDC. The nasal spray will still be available and is approved by the FDA but is not recommended as it has been found to be less effective over the last 2 to 3 years. 

It is recommended that individuals older than 6 months be treated with the quadrivalent injection. There is a more potent version available for the elderly who may suffer from a less robust immune system. 

Who should not get the flu vaccine?
Dr. Welter: Most people can get the flu shot. Certain people should not get the nasal flu vaccine, including those who are on rejection drugs, immune-compromised or have HIV. If you are allergic to any component of the vaccine, you should not get it. Pregnant woman should not get the nasal spray but they can get the shot. Children have to be older than six months to get any vaccine because it doesn’t work very well any younger than that. Check with your doctor to see which type of flu vaccine is right for you.

When is the best time of year to get the flu vaccine?
Dr. Welter: As soon as it becomes available, which is usually by the end of August or the beginning of September. You want to do it before the season starts. A lot of people come in when people around them start getting the flu and that’s fine too, except you could get it in the meantime since the vaccine does need time to work. Usually, the vaccines take a couple of weeks to work.

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