There’s a chill in the air, and a new season is upon us. Not just fall and football, but flu season as well.
Nationally, flu season can run from October through May, although in Vermont the flu is typically most active in January or February. The seasonal flu is caused by the influenza virus, with can be spread through contact with an infected person or an object they have recently touched. It can even be spread through respiratory droplets that travel through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
Symptoms of the flu include a cough, sore throat, runny nose, fever, muscle aches, headaches, or fatigue. Typically, around 5-20% of people nationally will get the flu every year, so likely you will run into someone with the flu this year and be at risk for catching it. Luckily, there are ways to reduce your chances of getting the flu.
Each year, the flu vaccine is produced to target the strains of the influenza virus that are most likely to circulate that year. It contains inactivated strains of influenza that can’t cause an infection but allow the body to develop an immunity to those strains. It is recommended for everyone over 6 months of age, although people who have had a severe reaction to a previous vaccine should talk to their doctor about the flu vaccine. One notable difference this year is that the nasal spray vaccine is not recommended—it wasn’t effective at protecting against the flu. Immunity can take up to two weeks to develop after receiving the flu vaccine, so it’s important to get immunized before exposure to infected people!
Additionally, sometime people who receive the flu vaccine can develop mild flu-like symptoms afterwards. This can be a sign that your immune system is working to develop immunity to influenza, and not an actual infection. It is still possible to get the flu after getting the vaccine—your body may not have produced a full immune response to the vaccine, or you may come into contact with a strain of influenza that was not in the vaccine.
There are other ways to reduce your chance of catching and spreading the flu no matter what strains you are exposed to. Covering your mouth with a tissue or sleeve when coughing or sneezing and help to prevent spreading the flu. Washing your hands or using an alcohol based hand sanitizer can help prevent spread of the flu through contact – the flu virus can survive for up to 3 days on objects and surfaces! Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, as these are ways for the flu virus to enter your body. Limiting contact with those who are sick and staying at home while sick can also help to limit the spread of the flu. Unfortunately, adults who catch the flu can be contagious up to one day before and a week after they start to feel sick, allowing flu to continue to spread.
Getting the flu vaccine can also help protect the people around you from getting it. While most people are able to fight off the flu with some rest and chicken noodle soup, more than 200,000 people a year develop serious complications that require hospitalization. Children, the elderly, and people with chronic medical conditions are particularly at risk for developing complications. Each year, over 36,000 people die from complications of the flu. Getting the flu vaccine can help protect you and your loved ones! The flu vaccine is available from your primary care doctor, pharmacy, and some employers. For more information about the seasonal flu, visit www.flu.gov or the Vermont Department of Health.
Dr. Justin Chuang is a family medicine resident at the University of Vermont Medical Center.
Download the the UVM Medical Center flu clinic schedule and schedule your flu shot today.