Written by Tony Inae, MD
It’s that time of year when we need to think about flu season and making sure we are all get the flu vaccine. And what do you say to people that refuse to get the vaccine because they are convinced that it gave them the flu? Let’s start out by understanding what it is.
What is Influenza?
Influenza, more commonly referred to as the ‘flu’, is a highly contagious viral infection of the nose, throat and lungs. Although flu affects people of all age groups, kids are more susceptible to recurrent infections by variants of the influenza virus. Kids are not known for washing their hands well and may not wash up at all after playing a video game with other kids or swinging on the park swing. Many childhood activities involve touching surfaces that other kids have touched and that is a perfect way to spread the flu virus. Another way to ‘catch’ the virus is simply being with a group of kids, like in a classroom, where one child is sneezing or coughing. Just breathing in virus-laden air will “infect” a susceptible person. Unfortunately, we are contagious before we “feel” sick and can spread the virus before parents can keep their children home from school. Young children also have lower immunity compared to adults, because their immune systems are still developing. A serious influenza infection can land a child in the hospital. According to WHO (World Health Organization) estimates, 3 to 5 million severe cases of influenza occur in developed countries, resulting in 250,000 to 500,000 deaths every year. On an average, influenza epidemics occur every three years. Epidemics are widespread community infectious diseases, and can occur when the actual influenza virus mutates. When this happens, your previous immunity is no longer effective and you become susceptible to catching the new strain of flu. Did you know that when you have been infected with a specific strain of flu vaccine that you are then immune to that virus? It’s true. But the downside is that the flu virus mutates frequently, resulting in a cat and mouse chase between the virus and our Public Health experts who develop vaccines for the flu each year. Many people are affected by flu more than once per year. The flu season usually starts in the fall and ends in the spring. In the US, the peak activity is in January and February. However, the severity and incidence fluctuates from year-to-year, and is highly unpredictable.
What are the signs and symptoms of influenza?
There are various strains of influenza virus that circulate throughout the world each year. Symptoms usually develop 1 to 4 days after the initial exposure. The signs and symptoms of influenza vary from individual to individual, depending upon their age and health condition. The common symptoms of influenza include sudden onset of a fever (100 F to 104 F), headache, pain in lower back and legs, sore throat, weakness and non-productive dry cough that can later become severe to the point where it is productive (cough or sputum is coughed up). Some people may also experience symptoms like nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. The disease is self-limiting, meaning that it will resolve on it’s own, and infections usually subside within a week or two. Generally, you will feel poorly and stay should at home to give your body the rest it needs and so you don’t infect others.
How does it spread?
Most influenza infections are caused by breathing in virus-laden droplets that go into the air after an infected person sneezes or coughs. Infection can also occur when people touch any surface contaminated with the virus and then touch their own mouth or nose without washing their hands first.
What are some of the complications?
Most healthy people are able to recover from influenza without treatment or any severe complications. However, for some people, this contagious illness can cause various complications, including bronchitis, croup, otitis media (infection of ear), asthma, pneumonia and inflammation of the brain and heart. Older people, pregnant women, those with low immunity or underlying medical conditions are more likely to develop these types of complications. Severe asthmatics, children on long-term aspirin therapy, homeless people and residents at nursing or long-term care facilities are at higher risk of complications from the flu.
How is it treated and how can I prevent from getting it?
Over the counter cold and flu medications can provide symptomatic relief to the patients, which helps you rest and recover more comfortably. However, since the flu is a viral infection, antibiotics will not work. Antibiotics are only effective against bacteria. Most people don’t require any treatment. For otherwise healthy older children and adults, if you have a temperature that exceeds 103 F or if your have other health conditions that make you more susceptible, you should call your doctor as soon as you suspect the flu. You may be a good candidate for anti-viral medication, which can shorten the duration and reduce the severity of your symptoms, if given early. Prevention is always the preferred approach. Vaccination is the best way to prevent influenza. Annual immunization is strongly recommended for elderly people, pregnant women and for those who are at risk. The flu vaccine is also recommended for healthy people to stay protected against the infections, particularly those who work with people, such as teachers and healthcare providers. These vaccines are available at health clinics, private clinics, college and school health centers and pharmacy. Every year new vaccines are manufactured by evaluating the circulating virus so as to provide maximum protection against them. It is also important to take preventive steps, such as staying away from sick people, avoid touching surfaces that other people touch, and wash your hands frequently. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), keeping your hands clean is one of the most important things we can do to stop the spread of germs and stay healthy.
So, is it possible to get the flu from the vaccine?
The answer is no. It is not possible for the vaccine to give you the flu. The vaccine is made up of proteins that trick the body into thinking it was exposed to the flu and begins making antibodies to that flu strain. Because it’s not the actual virus, it cannot give you the flu. After getting the vaccination, while your body is building a resistance, it is very possible for people to coincidentally get the flu, while your body is still trying to make the antibodies to protect you from it. This blog is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. This blog is for information purpose only. As always, please consult your healthcare provider if you have any health concerns and certainly before starting a treatment program.