Flu season has begun and many question how to stay healthy during the winter. Flu season typically spans through October to February due to the nature of the virus’ behavior, and it spreads through people’s close proximity in the winter. Staying healthy throughout the long flu season depends on education surrounding the virus. Dr. Cameual Wright, medical director at CareSource, a nonprofit health plan, has important information regarding the flu to share with those hoping to avoid the flu this winter.
1. The flu is often confused with the common cold
Winter is a common time for many illnesses including the flu. Symptoms such as fever, cough, body aches and sometimes even nausea and vomiting can often be mistaken for the common cold. Since both are respiratory illnesses it can be hard and sometimes impossible to differentiate the two. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that the common cold is more likely to cause a runny or stuffy nose and does not typically result in serious health problems, while the flu can result in serious associated complications. The CDC provides a chart to help differentiate between the two illnesses.
2. Get the flu shot as soon as possible
It is ideal to get a flu shot as soon as possible to protect against the virus for the entirety of flu season. The CDC suggests getting the flu shot by the end of October to be protected before the virus spreads in individuals’ communities. The flu vaccine takes around two weeks after the time of vaccination for the antibodies to fully develop in the body and provide protection from the flu. Although it is suggested to get it as early as possible, the flu shot can be received at any time throughout the season. It is not important where someone gets a flu shot, just that they receive it. The flu shot is available at various places including doctor’s offices and retail clinics.
3. Dangers of influenza virus
Because all winter illnesses are often referred to as the flu, there is a misconception that the influenza virus is not serious. What’s important to know is that while many recover from the flu in a few days, some can face respiratory complications which can be life threatening and may even result in death. According to the CDC, in 2017-2018, an estimated 48.8 million people were sick with influenza, 22.7 million people went to a health care provider, 959,000 people were hospitalized, and 79,400 deaths occurred from influenza.
4. Flu shots can’t give you the flu
One of the most common misconceptions around the influenza virus is that you can get the flu from receiving the flu shot. The CDC has dismissed these myths as being false and states, “Flu vaccines given with a needle are currently made in two ways: the vaccine is made either with flu viruses that have been ‘inactivated’ (killed) and that therefore are not infectious, or by using only a single gene from a flu virus (as opposed to the full virus) in order to produce an immune response without causing infection.” There are symptoms and reactions that may occur as a result of the flu shot including soreness, redness, tenderness or swelling where the shot was given or a low-grade fever, headache and muscle aches that may begin one to two days after receiving the vaccine. The flu shot is important to get each year even if you have never had the flu as it not only protects yourself but the entire community.
5. Critical for pregnant women to get flu shot
It is critical for pregnant women to receive the flu shot to protect themselves and their baby. According to the CDC, changes in the immune system, heart and lungs during pregnancy make pregnant women and women up to two weeks postpartum more prone to severe illness from flu, including illness resulting in hospitalization. A 2018 study showed that getting a flu shot reduced a pregnant woman’s risk of being hospitalized with flu by an average of 40%. The CDC also states that pregnant women who get the flu vaccine are also helping to protect their babies for the first several months after their birth, when babies are too young to get vaccinated.
Staying healthy during flu season
Beyond vaccination, you can avoid contracting the flu by creating healthy habits. The CDC says habits including good hand washing, avoiding close contact with people who are sick and covering your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing can help you stay healthy this winter. If you are infected with the flu this winter, the CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except to get medical care or other necessities. If you are infected with the flu, the CDC says treatment with antivirals are most beneficial when started within 48 hours of getting sick, however treatment after this window will still be beneficial.
Dr. Cameual Wright is medical director of CareSource, a nonprofit health care provider headquartered in Dayton, Ohio.