A simple way to keep the flu away

You can avoid the flu this season by taking one simple step: Get a flu shot.

Unfortunately, some people think that getting a flu vaccine is too much trouble or costs too much. Or they are sure that a flu shot will make them sick or make them more likely to catch the flu or even colds.

Seasonal influenza— the flu—is caused by one of several strains of influenza viruses (type A or B) that infect the nose, throat, and lungs. The flu makes life miserable for a week or two for many people—and deadly for some. Flu season can begin as early as October and peak anywhere from late December to early April, according to the CDC.

Vaccine facts

Your best defense against the flu is to get vaccinated. Depending on your age, you can do that in one of two ways:

  • With a flu shot, given with a needle. This form of the vaccine contains killed virus and is approved for all people older than 6 months of age.
  • With a nasal spray vaccine. This form contains live, weakened flu viruses that can’t cause the flu. The nasal spray is not recommended for the 2016-2017 flu season. The CDC says this is because the nasal spray did not seem to protect against the flu over the last several flu seasons. In the past, it was meant for people ages 2 to 49.

Everyone 6 months and older should get a flu shot.  People at higher risk of severe and complicated infection include children 6 months to 59 months and adults ages 50 and older, pregnant women, anyone with a chronic disease, anyone who lives in a nursing home or other long-term care site, healthcare workers, and people who are often in contact with elderly adults or the chronically ill. The CDC says children between ages 6 months and 8 years who were never vaccinated or got only one dose of vaccine in the previous year should get 2 full doses of vaccine, 1 month apart.

Healthcare providers also suggest flu shots for women who plan to be pregnant during flu season. The CDC says flu shots are OK for breastfeeding mothers.

Talk with your healthcare provider first

Some people shouldn’t be vaccinated for the flu before talking with their healthcare provider, the CDC says. These are reasons to talk with your healthcare provider:

  • You have a severe allergy such as an anaphylactic reaction to chicken eggs.  (There are now flu vaccines especially developed for this group of people.)
  • You had previously developed Guillian-Barré syndrome in the 6 weeks after getting a flu shot.
  • You currently have an illness with a fever. Wait until symptoms improve before getting the vaccine.

Children younger than 6 months of age should not be vaccinated against the flu. Flu vaccines haven’t been approved for that age group.

Other prevention steps

Flu viruses are spread by contact with droplets sneezed or coughed from an infected person. Inhaling the droplets is the most common route to getting the flu. Touching objects on which droplets have landed also infects many people. You can spread the virus to others before you feel sick yourself. The CDC says you are contagious a day before symptoms begin and up to 5 days afterward.

You can protect yourself against the flu by doing simple things like washing your hands before eating and not putting your hands near your face or in your mouth. You don’t need special cleansers when washing your hands. Washing for at least 20 seconds with ordinary soap works fine. If someone in your family has the flu, you can keep surfaces clean of the virus by wiping them with a solution of 1 part bleach to 10 parts water.

The other effective means of flu prevention is humidity. The flu bug exists in higher quantities in dry nasal and oral passages, which is one reason why flu epidemics occur in dry winter months. Raise the humidity in your workplace and at home to keep your nasal passages and mouth moist. Your body will then be better able to flush out the flu bug.

Rooting out rumors

Don’t believe the rumor that a flu shot can give you even a mild case of influenza. It’s impossible. Neither form of the vaccine—by injection or nasal spray—contains a form of the flu virus that can give you the flu. The injected form of the vaccine is made from pieces of dead flu virus cells. The nasal spray contains live viruses that have been damaged so they can’t cause a major infection.

When you are injected with the flu vaccine, your body reacts as if it has been infected with the actual living virus and makes antibodies that provide immunity against the real virus. These antibodies remain at high levels for only 6 to 9 months. These disappearing antibody levels are one reason why you need to be revaccinated each year.

The main reason you should be revaccinated yearly is that the flu virus is constantly changing and evolving into new strains. Each year the CDC tries to guess which flu strain will be predominant. The CDC works with vaccine manufacturers to make the specific vaccine that will fight the predicted strain.

If you are concerned about the cost of a flu vaccine, check with your local health department for locations in your area where free flu shots are given.

Online Medical Reviewer: Cunningham, Louise, RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Holloway, Beth, RN, MEd

Date Last Reviewed: 2/3/2015
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