Another flu season is upon us, which means millions will soon be affected by this highly infectious respiratory illness, adding “insult to injury” on top of the COVID-19 pandemic. While influenza is unpredictable and flu seasons vary in timing, length, and severity, there’s no question that flu infection can be serious—even deadly. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that from October 1, 2019 through April 4, 2020, there were between 39,000,000 and 56,000,000 flu illnesses, between 410,000 and 740,000 flu hospitalizations, and between 24,000 and 62,000 flu deaths in the US.
However, with the proverbial ounce of prevention—an annual influenza immunization—you and your family can avoid falling victim to the flu as well as help minimize its spread to others who may be especially vulnerable.
What exactly is the flu?
The flu is a contagious respiratory illness that spreads in one of two ways. The more common mode of transmission is when someone infected with influenza sneezes, coughs, or talks and produces airborne droplets that enter the mouth or nose of a healthy person nearby. It’s also possible to get the flu by touching an object or surface (e.g., a doorknob or countertop) that is contaminated with the virus and then touching your own mouth, nose, or eyes.
Symptoms to watch for include sudden onset of fever, muscle or body aches, headache, cough, sore throat, fatigue, and runny or stuffy nose. Symptoms may also include vomiting and diarrhea, but this is more common in children than in adults. Also, it’s important to note that having the flu doesn’t necessarily mean you will exhibit all these symptoms simultaneously.
According to the CDC, complications of the flu can include bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections, dehydration, and worsening of chronic medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma, or diabetes.
Who’s most at risk?
In addition to people with the chronic medical conditions just noted, those at greater risk of developing flu complications include the elderly, the young, and pregnant women. While otherwise healthy people who don’t fall into the high-risk category are less susceptible to serious complications—and, hence, might be tempted to forego getting vaccinated—it’s important to keep in mind that they can still spread the virus to vulnerable members of the population, putting them at risk of serious complications.
It’s also worth noting that it’s not always the elderly who are hardest hit by the flu. For example, approximately 90 percent of the more than 12,000 deaths caused by the 2009 H1N1 pandemic were among people younger than age 65.
The flu vaccine
The CDC recommends an annual influenza vaccination for everyone six months of age and older with any licensed, age-appropriate flu vaccine. The flu vaccine causes antibodies to develop in the body approximately two weeks after vaccination. These antibodies provide protection against infection with the flu strains contained in the vaccine, which are those that health experts anticipate will be most common in the current flu season.
But the flu season has already begun. Isn’t it too late to get vaccinated?
According to the CDC, flu activity usually peaks in January or February but the season can begin as early as October and extend as late as May. Just because the season may already be underway doesn’t mean it’s too late to get vaccinated. You can still protect yourself—and others around you—by getting a flu shot as soon as possible.
Who should get vaccinated?
As mentioned, the CDC recommends influenza vaccination for all people age six months or older with very rare exceptions. Vaccinations are especially important for children and the elderly; anyone age 50 years or older; those at risk of complications from the flu, such as pregnant women, people with asthma, diabetes, or other chronic illnesses; people with a weakened immune system; those who live or work in nursing homes, hospitals, or long-term-care facilities; students living in dormitories; and anyone planning to travel or spend time in crowded conditions during flu season.
Those who shouldn’t be vaccinated include children under six months of age and people with severe, life-threatening allergies to the flu vaccine or any ingredient in the vaccine, which might include gelatin, antibiotics, or other ingredients.