Flu News: Your Influenza Questions Answered

It’s flu season. There’s been much in the news this past week about influenza, which has reached epidemic levels in much of the country. I’ve collected some of the best information I’ve found around the web in order to answer questions that families may have.

What is influenza?

Influenza is a contagious virus that causes fever and respiratory illness. There are two main types- A and B, both of which have many sub-types. Seasonal flu activity tends to peak in the United States in February and March. Most of the circulating flu this year is Influenza A (H3N2). For more information, see the CDC page on Influenza Viruses.

Is the flu in my area right now?

Yes, almost certainly. Here is the CDC’s flu activity map from the first week of January 2013, which shows widespread flu activity in almost all of the United States.

Flu Activity

Google’s Flu Trends allows you to see influenza activity in your state over time.

I haven’t had my flu shot yet. Should I still get it?

Yes! Except for unusual circumstances, everyone over 6 months of age should be vaccinated. It is not too late.

My family has never gotten the seasonal flu shot. Why should we start now?

Dr. Melissa Arca‘s article in the Sacramento Bee gives a nice overview of the flu shot and why we should all get it. In part she says,

“The bottom line for me is that the flu vaccine is worth it. High fevers, aches, pains, potentially serious complications and days missed from school and work? No thanks, I’ll do what I can to protect my family from the flu. And for me, that means getting us all vaccinated.”

Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson outlines perhaps the most compelling reason to protect your family in her post, Children Are Dying From the Flu.

Where can I get a flu shot?

The first place to start is with your health care provider. You can also type in your address in the handy Health Map Vaccine Finder and it will show a number of options close to your home.

Is the flu shot working well this year?

This year’s flu shot is a very good match to the types of flu that are circulating. The flu shot is never quite perfect in terms of protecting us because savvy influenza strains can shift and drift each year. Scientists make their best estimate of what these changes will be and prepare the flu shot accordingly. This year the shot is thought to be 62% effective. Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, explained this by saying,

“The pick of the strains [in the current vaccine] is as good as it could have been this year,” Frieden told reporters during a teleconference. “Sixty two percent is far less than we wish it would be, but it’s [that] the glass is 62% full, or we have a 62% reduction in the number of people who would be going to the doctor if they hadn’t been vaccinated. So it’s certainly well worth the effort.”

Can the flu shot give me the flu?

One of the most common questions I get in clinic. The answer, simply, is no. Dr. Swanson explains it this way,

“The shot is an entirely dead virus—it’s impossible for it to replicate in your body and cause infection. The nasal spray is a very weakened strain (imagine a sprinter without legs or a bumble bee without wings) that is unable to replicate in the lungs to cause disease. The most common side effects after the shot and/or the nasal spray is fatigue, lowgrade fever, and runny nose (from the nasal spray).”

It takes up to two weeks after getting the vaccine for a person to have immunity (be protected) against the flu.

What are the symptoms of the flu?

Typically influenza causes fever, cough, runny nose, and body aches. Children are more likely to have vomiting and diarrhea in addition to the other symptoms. This page, from Flu.gov, outlines symptoms, reviews differences between the common cold and influenza, and give tips for when you may need to seek care from a health care provider.

If I think someone in my family has the flu, what should I do?

Stay home and rest. Drink plenty of fluids. Fever and aches can be treated with appropriate doses of ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Flu.gov has great information on treating the flu. Dr. Burgert has a list of supplies you’ll need at home for this cold and flu season.

What is Tamiflu and do I need it?

Tamiflu (oseltamivir) is the most commonly used anti-viral medication used to treat influenza. It works best when started during the first two days of the illness. It is most often used in the very young, very old, or for people with serious medical conditions. If you have more questions about whether you require an anti-viral medication, ask your doctor.

What other questions do you have about influenza?

All my wishes that your family stays healthy this flu season.


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