We are rapidly approaching flu season in the United States. It can begin as early as October and last as late as May. It also typically peaks between December and February.
The Southern Hemisphere’s flu patterns help predict what we may see here at home. While influenza activity in the Southern Hemisphere typically occurs June through September, the flu season there started in April this year and has peaked months ahead of its expected pattern. As such, we predict our flu season will come a bit earlier this year.
Flu shots for this year are now available at your primary care offices and local pharmacies, but it’s always good to call ahead for an appointment to lessen any wait times.
The CDC recommends that people get vaccinated by the end of October, but it is important to know that vaccination after October can still provide protection during the peak of flu season. It takes about two weeks for the flu shot to take full effect, so plan for it before any holiday season traveling.
Anyone 6 months and older should get a flu vaccine every season with rare exceptions for certain health conditions. There are several different vaccines available with considerations for age, pregnancy status, weakened immune systems or severe allergy history.
Unfortunately, people 65 and older account for 71 to 85 percent of flu-related deaths. Because the immune system weakens with age, this population is particularly susceptible to infections that progress into severe illness. Luckily, there are several high-dose flu vaccines specially formulated for the 65-plus population that helps increase their immune response to the flu vaccine.
Flu vaccines are life-saving in children as well. A recent study was able to demonstrate that flu vaccination reduced children’s risk of severe life-threatening influenza by 75 percent. A study prior to that showed that flu vaccination reduced hospitalization by 41 percent and flu-related emergency room visits by half among children aged 6 months to 17 years of age.
The flu vaccine will not make you bulletproof to the virus, but it will definitely help you fight off illness and recover faster.
Even the healthiest among us have the potential to progress into severe illness. So, it’s important that you speak to your primary care provider to see which flu immunization preparation is right for you. It’s also important to know that you will not get the flu from your flu shot, although you might feel a little sore or sick for a short amount of time.
As for how the flu spreads, it’s primarily through droplets from coughing, sneezing, talking or breathing. It can also spread through direct contact, such as shaking hands and touching your nose, mouth or eyes after contact with a contaminated surface.
In addition to being vaccinated, you can do the following to avoid catching and spreading flu.
- Wear a mask to help limit droplet spread from coughing, sneezing, speaking
- Avoiding touching your nose, mouth or eyes
- Wash your hands with gentle soap and water. This is preferred over alcohol-based sanitizing gels, which will not be enough to inactivate certain germs if hands are visibly dirty or greasy.
If you are ill, we recommend limiting contact/social distancing with people in your home and out in the community. This means trying to enjoy your alone time until you’ve been fever-free for more than 24 hours without use of Tylenol or ibuprofen.
For me, the worst symptom of the flu is the shortness of breath and chest tightness. Other common flu symptoms include headache, severe muscle aches, fever, runny or stuffy nose, cough and fatigue.
If you or your loved one is at a higher risk for serious flu complications and becomes sick, reach out to your primary care provider right away.
High risk groups include:
- Children younger than 5 years of age, especially those younger than 2 years of age
- Adults aged 65-plus
- People younger than 19 taking long-term aspirin or salicylate containing medications
- People who live in long-term care facilities or nursing homes
- People with:
- A body mass index of 40 or higher
- Weakened immune systems due to disease such as HIV or cancer, or medication, such as those receiving chemotherapy, radiation or long-term steroid therapy.
- A history of stroke
- And those with the following conditions:
- Neurologic and neurodevelopment conditions
- Chronic lung disease such as asthma, COPD and cystic fibrosis
- Endocrine disorders such as diabetes
- Heart disease such as hypertension, congestive heart failure, coronary heart disease
- Kidney disease
- Liver disorders
- Metabolic disorders
There are influenza antivirals that will help reduce viral load, shorten illness duration and hopefully make symptoms milder if you take them within the first 48 hours of illness onset. We are happy to discuss these treatment options to get you back on track.
If you are having mild symptoms, you can plan to ride the virus out at home.
In addition to staying home until you’ve been fever-free without medication for 24 hours, be sure to rest, drink plenty of fluids and eat light. Please ask your primary care provider about appropriate over-the-counter medications. Also call your provider if you begin experiencing severe sore throat, fever greater than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, productive cough, progressive fatigue, facial pain, worsening headache or symptoms that haven’t resolved in two weeks.