6 Things You Should Know About the Flu from Hawaii’s Dr. Sarah Park
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6 Things You Should Know About the Flu from Hawaii’s Dr. Sarah Park

Prepare for flu season with these must-know facts.

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By Christie Donnelly

Flu season is upon us! And despite Hawaii’s warm, sunny weather during the winter months, residents of the Hawaiian Islands are just as susceptible to contracting the flu as their mainland (and cold weather faring) counterparts.

So, how can you avoid catching the flu this season? Dr. Sarah Park, MD, FAAP, Hawaii State Epidemiologist and Chief of the Disease Outbreak Control Division for the Hawaii Department of Health gave us the facts—and dispelled the myths—about the flu virus. 

Only the flu virus can cause the flu

2 / 8 Only the flu virus can cause the flu

There are only two types of the influenza virus—types A and B—that can cause the seasonal flu. According to Dr. Park, however, many patients believe the flu can be caused by exposure to weather, bacteria and other factors: “I’ve heard people call a stomachache the ‘stomach flu,’ or they have a cold and they’re calling it the flu. Only the flu virus can cause the flu. It’s pretty distinct.”

Because they share symptoms, it can be hard to distinguish between a common cold and the flu; generally, cold symptoms are milder. If you’re pregnant, over age 65 or have a chronic illness or weakened immune system and have symptoms like a fever, chills and muscle or body aches, contact your healthcare provider. It’s important for high-risk groups to seek medical care to avoid potential complications.

Everyone is susceptible to the flu

3 / 8 Everyone is susceptible to the flu

Eating a well-balanced diet, exercising and getting plenty of sleep are key to good health—but they won’t necessarily protect you from catching the flu. No type of person is more or less susceptible to the flu virus, but some people are more likely to contract a more severe flu than others. “People with underlying respiratory conditions, like asthma, can have more complications related to the flu or have a prolonged bout of the flu,” says Dr. Park.

People who are healthy, overall, can generally bounce back after contracting the flu. But those with underlying conditions, or people in higher-risk groups, such as pregnant women, the elderly or people living with chronic illnesses, may require hospitalization, antiviral medications or additional treatments. 

Vaccines don’t cause the flu

4 / 8 Vaccines don’t cause the flu

Although the flu shot can cause side effects like soreness and swelling at the site of injection, headache and nausea, it cannot cause the flu. Vaccines contain inactivated virus—so they’re no longer infectious—or components that look similar to the flu virus, so your immune system is ready when it encounters the real thing.

Dr. Park explains, “[The flu vaccine] should not make you sick because the protein in it cannot make you sick. It’s more likely that you were infected waiting in line at the doctor’s office or pharmacy. It takes two weeks before immunity [from the shot] is fully developed, so if you’re exposed to someone contaminated in that time, you’re going to get sick.”

You can take steps to prevent the flu

5 / 8 You can take steps to prevent the flu

According to Dr. Park, the best thing one can do to prevent catching the flu—and contracting many other diseases—is practicing proper hand washing. Remember: Lather up and scrub the fronts and backs of your hands, between your fingers and under your fingernails for at least 20 seconds (or about the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday”). If you don’t have access to soap and water, use hand sanitizer than contains at least 60 percent alcohol. You can also prevent flu transmission by avoiding close contact with people who have the flu and avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

Already have the flu? Do those around you a favor: Stay home! You can help prevent spreading the virus by isolating yourself from others, even if that means skipping a few days of school, work or errands.

People with egg allergies can be vaccinated

6 / 8 People with egg allergies can be vaccinated

Because the flu vaccine contains trace amounts of egg proteins, it used to be recommended that people with egg allergies not be vaccinated or be monitored for signs of an allergic reaction for up to 30 minutes after receiving the vaccine.

In 2016, however, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) updated its guidelines for people with egg allergies:

  • There’s no longer a 30-minute monitoring period for those who have experienced mild allergic reactions, such as hives, after a flu shot
  • Those who have had serious allergic reactions after a flu shot, such as swelling or difficulty breathing, should receive their vaccine in a doctor’s office equipped to manage severe allergic responses
  • Those who have had severe allergic reactions after a flu shot shouldn’t be vaccinated

Be sure to talk to your doctor or pharmacist about any previous allergic reactions you’ve had to the flu shot, including side effects (like hives or difficulty breathing) and the duration of your reaction. 

There is a right time to get vaccinated

7 / 8 There is a right time to get vaccinated

So, when is the best time to receive your flu vaccine? Dr. Park explains, “In Hawaii, we see flu year-round. There’s no [deadline] for being vaccinated, but as soon as you can get it, the better. Make sure your immune system is ready for the season that’s coming in January, February, March.”

And for those living on the mainland, Dr. Park recommends being vaccinated early in the flu season, which generally lasts from October to May. Remember: It can take up to two weeks for full immunity to develop after being vaccinated, so try to visit your pharmacy or doctor’s office as early as possible. 

Get to know Dr. Sarah Park

8 / 8 Get to know Dr. Sarah Park

Dr. Sarah Park, MD, FAAP, is the Hawaii State Epidemiologist and Chief of the Disease Outbreak Control Division. She directs all of the state’s campaigns relating to emerging infections, disease monitoring and investigations, immunizations and public health preparedness. 

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