Flu activity is currently low in the United States, but is expected to increase in the coming weeks, making now a great time to prepare. Flu infects millions of people every flu season and causes an estimated 200,000-plus people each year to be hospitalized.
CDC and CVIM want you to be prepared to fight the flu this season– and if you do get the flu, we want you to know when to seek medical care. We interviewed Dr. Michael Jhung, a medical officer and flu expert with CDC’s Influenza Division. Dr. Jhung shares tips for preventing flu, explains why people can’t get the flu from the flu vaccine, and provides insight into some of the ways CDC helps protect you from flu.
What sort of flu season is expected this year?
Flu activity usually tends to begin in October and can last as late as May, but the timing and severity of flu seasons vary considerably, so it’s difficult to predict how bad the upcoming season will be. Most often, flu activity is highest during January and February, but it’s possible that different parts of the country will see flu outbreaks at different times of the season. The best time to start getting prepared is early, when flu activity is still pretty low.
How do flu viruses spread?
Flu is typically spread by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze, or talk. Less often, a person might also get flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth, eyes or possibly their nose.
How serious is the flu?
Flu severity can vary widely from one season to the next and from person to person depending on many factors like what flu viruses are spreading, the health and age of the people exposed to flu, and how many people get vaccinated.
Certain people are at greater risk for serious complications if they get the flu — for example, older people, young children, pregnant women, smokers and people with certain health conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, or heart disease). But flu can be serious for anyone, so it’s important to take as many steps to prevent infection as you can.
What’s the best way to prevent getting the flu?
Yearly vaccination is the first and best way to protect against flu. Flu vaccination can reduce flu illnesses, doctors’ visits, missed work due to flu, as well as prevent flu-related hospitalizations and deaths. Everyone 6 months of age and older, with rare exception, should get a flu vaccine.
Even if you got vaccinated last year, you should still get a flu vaccine this year. This is because the vaccines are updated each year to fight against the flu viruses that research shows will cause the most illness among people during the upcoming flu season. Flu vaccines aren’t perfect, but are still your first line of defense against the flu. If you haven’t gotten your flu vaccine yet this season, now’s a good time to get one.
Is there more than one type of flu vaccine available this season?
There are several flu vaccine options for the 2013-2014 flu season. Most of the flu vaccine available this season is made to protect against three different flu viruses (these are called “trivalent” vaccines) but some flu vaccines made this year will protect against four different flu viruses (these are called “quadrivalent” vaccines).
In addition to the standard flu shot, there’s a nasal spray flu vaccine and an intradermal flu shot (injected into the skin instead of the muscle). All of the nasal spray vaccines sold in the U.S. this year will be quadrivalent. Nasal spray vaccines are approved for use in healthy people 2 through 49 years of age who are not pregnant. The intradermal flu shot uses a needle that is 90% smaller than regular flu shots and is available for healthy people aged 18 to 64 years old.
CDC doesn’t have a preference for which of the available flu vaccine options people should get this season. The important thing is to get a flu vaccine every year. Talk to your doctor or nurse about the best flu vaccine options for you.
What’s one of the biggest myths about the flu vaccine?
Many people mistakenly believe that the flu vaccine can give you the flu. The flu vaccine cannot cause flu illness. The viruses in the vaccine are either killed (flu shot) or weakened (nasal spray vaccine), which means they cannot cause infection. The most common side effects from a flu shot are a sore arm and maybe a low fever or achiness. The nasal spray flu vaccine might cause congestion, runny nose, sore throat, or cough. If you do experience them at all, these side effects are mild and short-lived.
In addition to getting the flu vaccine, what else can people do to prevent the flu?
Practice good health habits! Cover your mouth when you cough, wash your hands often, and avoid touching your eyes, nose and/or mouth. These small steps can help stop the spread of germs and prevent respiratory illnesses like the flu.
Avoid or limit close contact with sick people. If you do get sick, stay home from work or school for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone, except to get medical care.
If someone does get the flu, can it be treated?
Yes, there are prescription medications called antiviral drugs that can be used to treat the flu. Flu antiviral drugs like Tamiflu are medicines that can shorten the time you are sick and lessen symptoms. There is research that shows that these medicines can reduce serious complications from flu, including hospitalization and death. Antiviral drugs work best when started soon after symptoms develop so people with flu-like symptoms – especially high-risk groups like seniors and young children – should seek medical care ASAP. It’s important to remember that antivirals are not a substitute for getting a flu vaccine.