Flu Season

  • Published
  • By Second Lieutenant Silvia Son
  • 452 AMW/AMDS

It is now March, and if you have not received your flu shot, it is not too late! It takes up to two weeks to build immunity after a flu shot, but you can benefit from the vaccine even if you don't get it until after the flu season starts. It is ideal for people in the United States to get their flu vaccine by the end of October. In the United States, flu season occurs in the fall and winter. The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tracks flu activity and reports that while flu (influenza) viruses circulate year-round, flu activity often peaks between December and February and seasonal activity can last as late as May.

Flu viruses evolve quickly, so last year's vaccine may not protect you from this year's viruses. New flu vaccines are released every year to keep up with rapidly adapting flu viruses. When you get vaccinated, your immune system produces antibodies to protect you from the viruses included in the vaccine. But, antibody levels may decline over time which is a reason to get a flu shot every year.

Flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by the influenza virus. Flu vaccines, though not 100 % effective, are the best way to prevent the misery of the flu and its complications. The CDC recommends the annual flu vaccine for just about everyone 6 months and older. Influenza is potentially very dangerous, even for healthy people. However, people 65 years and older, people of any age with certain chronic medical conditions (i.e. asthma, diabetes, heart disease), pregnant women, and children under the age of 5 are at higher risk and can develop serious flu-related complications if they get sick. Getting vaccinated not only protects you, but protects those who are more vulnerable to serious flu illness, like babies and young children, older people, and people with certain chronic health conditions.

Flu is different from a cold. Flu usually comes on suddenly. People who have flu often feel some or all of these symptoms: fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills, fatigue, diarrhea and vomiting. Flu viruses spread by droplets when a person with flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can be transmitted to the mouths or noses of people who are nearby. A person might also get flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, and/or eyes. The time from when a person is exposed and infected with flu to when symptoms begin is about 2 days, but can range from about 1 to 4 days. CDC states people with flu are most contagious in the first 3-4 days after their illness begins. Some adults may be able to infect others beginning 1 day before symptoms develop and up to 5 to 7 days after becoming sick. Some people, especially young children and people with weakened immune systems, might be able to infect others with flu viruses for an even longer time.

CDC estimates that influenza was associated with more than 48.8 million illnesses, more than 22.7 million medical visits, 959,000 hospitalizations, and 79,400 deaths during the 2017–2018 influenza season. This burden was higher than any season since the 2009 pandemic and serves as a reminder of how severe seasonal influenza can be.

To clarify some misconceptions about the flu vaccine: No, flu vaccines do not cause flu! But why do some people get “sick after the flu shot”? Firstly, some people are more sensitive to the body’s production of protective antibodies and develop muscle aches and a fever for a day or two after a flu vaccine. Secondly, as mentioned earlier, it takes two weeks for the vaccination to take full effect. If you are exposed to the influenza virus during that two-week window, you might catch the flu. Lastly, unfortunately in some years, the influenza viruses used for the vaccine do not match the viruses circulating during the flu season. If this occurs, your flu shot will be less effective, but may still offer some protection.  

In addition to the flu vaccine, there are supplemental steps you can take to help protect yourself from the flu and other viruses. The CDC recommends washing your hands often and thoroughly with soap and running water for 20 seconds. If water and soap are not available, use an alcohol-based sanitizer. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth whenever possible. When coughing or sneezing, use the bend of your elbow, not your hands! Get plenty of sleep, exercise regularly, drink plenty of fluids, eat a nutritious diet and manage your stress. It is not too late to protect yourself and your loved ones against flu outbreaks if you get the vaccine now.