As a pediatric infectious disease specialist, this time of year—flu season—is one of my busiest. I’ve heard just about every myth there is out there about influenza and the flu vaccine. Here are a few things I wish everyone knew about the flu.
1. The flu shot isn’t 100 percent effective—but it doesn’t need to be.
You may have heard people say, “I’m not getting the flu vaccine, it doesn’t work!”
It is true—the flu vaccine isn’t 100 percent effective. Each year, a new flu vaccine is developed based on scientific insights from the previous year’s flu season, as well as information about flu strains circulating in the Southern Hemisphere, where their flu season ends just as ours begins.
We can expect that this year’s flu vaccine, like the flu vaccine in recent years, will be about 50 percent effective overall. Would we love that number to be closer to 100 percent? Of course, and scientists are working on developing a vaccine to achieve that goal. But a vaccine that reduces the rates of flu by 50 percent, is also known to make the flu less severe in people who do get it, and is preventing a lot of people from getting sick, going to the hospital, and dying? That’s a good vaccine.
It’s also worth mentioning that despite the popularly held belief, you cannot catch the flu from the flu vaccine. It does not contain a live virus, so it can’t transmit the flu. If you know someone who got sick right after getting a flu shot, it’s a coincidence—after all, there are a lot of viruses circulating this time of year. And because it’s not a live vaccine, it’s also safe for immune-compromised people to receive. In fact, there are very few people who can’t safely get the flu vaccine: infants under 6 months of age, and anyone who’s had a severe allergic reaction to the vaccine in the past.
2. It’s not too late to get this year’s vaccine.
Some people think it’s “too late” to get the flu vaccine. Not true! In some years, the flu peaks in early December, but more often it doesn’t reach its peak until January or February, with another spike in cases well after that. What we often see is an early peak with Type A influenza early in the year, and then another peak with Type B in the spring.
Besides vaccination, you can also protect yourself from the flu with frequent hand washing and by avoiding contact with people who have flu-like symptoms.
3. The flu is more than a mild inconvenience. It’s a serious illness, especially for certain groups of people
Influenza killed at least 79,000 people, including 183 children, during the 2017-2018 flu season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those at highest risk of being hospitalized or dying from the flu are people aged 65 and older. Young children, under the age of 2, are also at high risk of being hospitalized, although they don’t have the same rate of fatal infections as older people, and usually recover. Other people at high risk are those with respiratory conditions like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diabetes, extreme obesity, and people taking medications that suppress their immune system, such as high-dose steroids and chemotherapy.
However, even healthy people can develop life-threatening cases of the flu. Of the children who die from the flu each year, about half are otherwise completely healthy with no serious pre-existing conditions.
4. If you’re not sure if you have the flu, you probably don’t.
Sometimes, all our efforts to ward off the flu fall short.
Although there is some overlap between the symptoms of a bad cold and the flu, influenza announces itself pretty clearly, often with an abrupt onset. If you felt fine at noon and then at 2pm, a switch flipped and you were hit with a wave of fever, chills, weakness and exhaustion, coughing, and sore throat, then it’s probably the flu. The flu is also typically accompanied by a fever of 100 degrees or higher; adults don’t usually get a fever when they have the common cold, although children sometimes do. If you’re still debating whether or not you feel well enough to go to work, or if your child is well enough to go to school, it’s probably not the flu. When the flu hits, it’s hard to think of going anywhere but your bed.
For a healthy person between the ages of 2 and 65, going to the doctor for the flu probably isn’t needed. Your best remedy is to stay home and get plenty of fluids and plenty of rest. Typically, the misery will run its course in about a week.
But if you’re over 65 or your child is under 2, or if you have underlying conditions like cancer, heart disease, or lung disease, or if you’re taking medications that suppress your immune system, it’s important to see your doctor at the first sign of flu symptoms. There are medications you can and should take in order to modify the infection and reduce your risk of getting sicker. There’s a “golden window” of about 48 hours after the onset of symptoms during which these medications are most effective, so don’t delay.
5. Prevention and protection from the flu is important for all of us.
Most hospitals and medical centers require their employees to receive the flu vaccine. If an employee can’t or won’t get it, they must wear a mask when coming into contact with patients. There’s a reason for that: An essential way to protect others from getting the flu is by preventing ourselves from transmitting it. Flu is a highly contagious disease, and the best way to protect everyone, but especially those who are more vulnerable—like small children, the elderly, and the chronically ill, is to vaccinate those around them. We know that in countries where the flu vaccine has been introduced in school-aged children only, deaths from the flu decline among the elderly—even though they haven’t been vaccinated! By vaccinating your healthy, 10-year-old soccer-playing child, you’re not just protecting him from the flu—you’re also protecting his grandmother, and your friend’s 4-month-old baby, and your neighbor who’s undergoing chemotherapy.
So let’s all work together to protect each other from the flu.