Influenza (the flu) is a contagious respiratory illness caused by Influenza A and B viruses. The flu season in the U.S. runs from October thru May every year. The rate of flu infection in the general population during the flu season typically ranges from 10-20%. Unfortunately, the flu causes 35,000-40,000 deaths and over 200,000 hospitalizations in the U.S. each year.
Since, October 2017, the flu has caused more than 360 deaths in North Carolina.
Is it the Flu or Just a Cold?
Both the flu and the common cold are characterized by nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat and cough. However, people with the flu also tend to experience body aches, chills, and fatigue. People with the flu often have a fever above 100oF (but not always). The flu can also cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea (more commonly in children).
The Flu Can Be Prevented
The best way to prevent getting the flu is to get the flu vaccine every year.
The flu vaccine lowers your risk of infection if you are exposed to the flu, and results in less severe illness if you become infected with the flu. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends annual flu vaccination for EVERYONE older than 6 months of age, including pregnant women.
It is best to get the vaccine before the end of October each year. However, getting the vaccine at any time during the flu season (October thru May) lowers your risk of getting the flu.
Common Myths About the Flu Vaccine
“The flu shot can cause the flu.”
The flu vaccine is made from an inactivated virus that CANNOT cause flu infection. It takes 1-2 weeks to get protection from the vaccine, so people who get the flu right after receiving a flu vaccine were going to get sick anyway. But people assume that because they got sick after getting the vaccine, the vaccine must have caused their illness.
“I’m healthy so I don’t need the flu shot.”
Healthy people can benefit from getting the flu vaccine, which lowers the risk of flu infection and results in less severe illness if you become infected. Unfortunately, even healthy people can develop severe illness or die from the flu.
“I never get the flu so I don’t need the flu shot.”
If you’re reading this, you’ve never been in a fatal car accident but you probably still wear your seatbelt. The same logic applies to getting the flu vaccine every year to protect yourself against serious illness or death from the flu.
“I hear the flu shot isn’t effective this year.”
The effectiveness of the flu vaccine ranges widely from year to year, anywhere from 20% to 60%. That means, if you are exposed to the flu, you lower your risk of flu infection or severe illness by 20% to 60%, depending on the year.
Also, we don’t know the true effectiveness of the flu vaccine in a given year until the flu season is over, so it’s better to get the flu shot rather than speculate about how effective it might be.
The Flu Can Be Treated
If you get the flu, there are medications that can reduce the duration and severity of your illness. The most commonly prescribed medication for the flu is Tamiflu, which reduces the duration of flu symptoms by about 1 day and reduces the severity of flu illness. It is most effective if started within 2 days of the onset of symptoms, so it’s important to see your healthcare provider as soon as you suspect you might have the flu.
About John Whelan, MD
Dr. John Whelan is a board certified Internal Medicine physician with WakeMed Physician Practices – Primary Care in North Raleigh. He has clinical interests in diabetes, heart disease and preventive medicine.