As summer winds down, we begin to see an uptick in patients with influenza, a virus that infects the respiratory system, often causing a sudden onset of fever, cough, sore throat, and body aches. Fall is the best time of year to get vaccinated against the virus, which typically peaks during the winter months. Although the flu virus infects millions of Americans each year, resulting in nearly 200,000 hospitalizations and thousands of deaths, less than half of adults get a flu shot. Perhaps busy schedules and forgetfulness are partly to blame. But there is also a lot of misinformation circulating about the flu vaccine, leading some people to opt out of a valuable form of preventive care. As an infectious diseases specialist, I'll help you separate flu facts from fiction.
Q: What is the best way to protect yourself from the flu?
The flu vaccine is the most effective way to protect yourself from getting the flu, and it's recommended for anyone six months of age or older. Even if you are healthy and rarely get sick, getting the flu shot can protect others around you who may be at greater risk of becoming very sick from the flu, such as those with chronic illnesses, cancer, weakened immune systems and infants.
Q: If I get a flu shot, can I still get the flu?
Yes. It can take up to two weeks for the vaccine to build up your body's immunity to the virus, so getting a flu shot early in the fall—when the virus is not circulating at peak levels—gives you the best protection against the flu.
Each year, the vaccine is developed to protect against specific strains of influenza. If a different strain begins to circulate, the vaccine may not be as effective. Still, a flu shot can help reduce the severity of flu symptoms if you contract the virus.
Q: Can the flu vaccine cause you to get the flu?
No. The flu vaccine contains a killed virus, so it cannot give you the flu.
Q: Is there anyone who should not get a flu shot?
If you have severe allergies, especially to the ingredients in the flu shot, or a history of Guillain Barre Syndrome, talk to your doctor before getting vaccinated. There may be other options for vaccination.
With any vaccine, there can be side effects, such as soreness at the injection site or a mild skin reaction.
Q: If I get the flu virus, what should I do?
If you are experiencing severe symptoms, make an appointment to see your doctor. We often prescribe antiviral medications, which can shorten the duration of your symptoms. It's most effective when started within 48 hours of symptom onset.
Stay at home for at least 24 hours after your fever subsides. While you're at home, isolate yourself from others and wash your hands often to avoid spreading the virus. It's possible to transmit the flu virus for up to eight days, starting from the day before you actually experience symptoms.
Q: Where can I find more information about flu prevention?
Just log on to kp.org and type "flu" in the search bar.
Scott Cutro, MD
Chief, Infectious Diseases
Dr. Scott Cutro practices at the Kaiser Permanente Cumberland Medical Center in Atlanta. He is dual board certified in internal medicine and infectious diseases. He completed internal medicine residency at Emory University and an infectious diseases fellowship at New York University. To learn more about his approach to care, visit kp.org.
Sponsored by: Scott Cutro, MD, Chief, Infectious Diseases | Kaiser Permanente of Georgia | www.kp.org