By. Joseph Bresee, M.D., FAAP
Influenza (the ‘flu’) is an infection of the nose, throat, and lungs caused by the influenza virus. While the flu can make anyone very sick, people with chronic health conditions like chronic lung diseases such as asthma and COPD, diabetes (types 1 and 2), and chronic heart disease are more likely to develop serious problems from flu illness. The flu can make their chronic health conditions worse, even when those conditions are well-managed. For example, people with asthma may experience asthma attacks while they have the flu. Flu can also lead to flu-related complications like pneumonia and bronchitis that can result in hospitalization and sometimes even death. Each flu season, flu causes hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations, and thousands or sometimes tens of thousands of deaths.
For those at high risk for complications, getting a flu vaccine is especially important. CDC recommends an annual flu vaccine for everyone 6 months and older.
While how well the vaccine works can vary, the benefits from vaccination are well documented. Studies show that flu vaccination can reduce flu illnesses, doctors' visits, missed work and school due to flu, as well as prevent flu-related hospitalizations.
The following five facts will help you to understand how serious the flu can be and how flu vaccination protects you.
Fact: The flu shot cannot cause flu illness. Sometimes the minor side effects from flu vaccination can be mistaken for flu illness. The most common side effects from the flu shot are soreness, redness, tenderness, or swelling where the shot was given. Low-grade fever, headache, and muscle aches also may occur. If any of these side effects occur, they begin soon after vaccination, are mild and short-lived.
The reason why flu shots cannot cause the flu is because they are made, either:
- a) With flu vaccine viruses that have been ‘killed’ (inactivated) and therefore cannot cause flu illness, or
- b) With no flu vaccine viruses at all (which is the case for recombinant influenza vaccine).
*Flu vaccine is available as a shot and as a nasal spray. Nasal spray flu vaccine is not recommended for people with chronic health diseases.
Fact: Flu can be a serious disease, particularly for people with certain chronic health conditions, such as asthma, heart disease, or diabetes. For people at high risk, getting the flu can mean developing serious flu-related complications, like pneumonia, or a worsening of existing health conditions, which can lead to hospitalization. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has estimated that more than 200,000 people in the Unites States are hospitalized each year for respiratory and heart conditions associated with seasonal flu infection. And during the 2014-2015 season, more than half of adults hospitalized for flu-related illness had at least one reported underlying medical condition; the most commonly reported were cardiovascular disease, metabolic disorders such as diabetes and obesity.
Fact: Getting a flu vaccine can still be beneficial, as long as flu viruses are still circulating. As of April 15, the latest flu data from CDC show that influenza activity continues to decrease in the United States, but still remains slightly elevated. Influenza activity may have peaked for the season, but this does not mean that flu season is over. There are still several weeks of flu activity to come.
The flu vaccine offers protection against three or four different flu viruses, depending on which vaccine you get. Getting vaccinated now can still protect you this season.
Fact: Getting a flu vaccine each year is the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones each season. There are two main reasons it’s important to get vaccinated every year:
- First, the body’s immune response from vaccination declines over time, so that last year’s vaccine might not provide good protection.
- Second, because flu viruses are constantly changing, the formulation of the flu vaccine is reviewed each year and sometimes updated to keep up with changing flu viruses.
Fact: The flu is a respiratory disease caused by influenza viruses, and not a stomach or intestinal disease. Many people use the term “stomach flu” to describe illnesses with nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. These symptoms can be caused by many different viruses, bacteria, or even parasites. While vomiting, diarrhea, and being nauseous or “sick to your stomach” can sometimes be related to influenza — more commonly in children than adults — these problems are rarely the main symptoms of the flu.
If you’re at high risk of flu-related complications due to a medical condition, and you think you have the flu:
- It is best for you to contact your health care provider (doctor, physician’s assistant, etc). Remind them about your medical condition.
- Avoid contact with other people except to get medical care.
- Your health care provider may prescribe an antiviral medicine to treat your flu illness. Antiviral drugs work better for treatment the sooner they are started.
The bottom line: Annual flu vaccination is a critical step to take for people with chronic health conditions. Now you can use the facts that you have learned to help stay in control of your health and encourage others around you to get their annual flu vaccination, too. The CDC recommends flu vaccination for everyone 6 months and older. To learn more about the flu and how to prevent it, visit cdc.gov/flu.