When the winds blow colder and the days grow shorter, you know that flu season is imminent. It’s the sickness we dread with each doorknob we touch and each time we hear a coworker cough.
In the spirit of flu season, we’re here to answer some of your most pressing questions about the virus: How long does the flu last? Is there any way to prevent it? Do you really need a flu shot?
We spoke with medical professionals and consulted the holy grail of health care, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to answer all of your flu FAQs. Keep reading to hear how you can protect yourself and your family this flu season.
14 of your most pressing flu FAQs answered
1. Should I get a flu shot?
The simple answer is yes – you should absolutely get a flu shot. Everyone ages six months and older is recommended to get one, with some exceptions, according to the CDC.
Getting a flu shot lowers your risk of getting sick with the flu and needing hospitalization. It is especially important if you have chronic health issues, such as heart disease, diabetes, or chronic lung disease. Pregnant women or women who recently gave birth should also get a flu shot to protect themselves and their babies.
Millions of people get the flu and hundreds of thousands are hospitalized because of it each year. And thousands die annually because of the flu. When more people get a flu vaccination, the virus spreads less through communities. When more people get their flu shot, it also helps vulnerable populations at risk of the flu, such as young children and older adults.
2. Who should not get a flu shot?
While the flu shot is almost universally recommended, the CDC does identify a few groups of people who should not get a flu shot. It is not recommended for the following groups to get flu shots:
• Those under six months of age
• Those with severe allergies to gelatin, antibiotics, or other ingredients in the vaccine
There are some cases in which patients should consult their doctor before getting a flu shot:
• Those who have had Guillain-Barré Syndrome
• Those with egg allergies
• Those who are currently sick
3. When should I get a flu shot?
It turns out that timing does matter when it comes to getting your flu shot. The sooner you can get a flu shot, the better. The CDC recommends getting a flu shot before the end of October. However, getting vaccinated through January or later can still be beneficial.
4. How does the flu shot work?
Researchers predict which flu virus will be most prominent in the upcoming flu season. The flu vaccines are created to fight off these specific strains of the flu. Because there is no way to make an exact prediction, sometimes the flu vaccine is a partial match for that year’s strain.
“Even if the flu vaccine is not a perfect match for this year's flu strain, a partial match can still give you some important protection,” says Laurie Endicott Thomas, MA, ELS, and author. She explains that you may still experience flu-like symptoms, but it can significantly reduce the risk of being hospitalized or fatality from the flu.
“Even if the flu vaccine is not a perfect match for this year's flu strain, a partial match can still give you some important protection.”
When you get a flu shot, your body goes into action to ward off against it. A flu shot encourages the recipient to create antibodies. These antibodies protect the body against infection of the vaccine virus.
5. Can the flu shot make you sick?
A common misconception is that the flu shot makes you sick. The CDC asserts that the flu shot cannot give you the flu. At worst, you may feel a few minor side effects a few days after receiving your vaccination. This is because flu shots are made either with no virus at all or with an inactivated virus, meaning it is not infectious.
There are a few side effects some people encounter after a flu shot, which are described below, but these are minor and will subside on their own. The reality is that even if you do experience side effects from a flu shot, they are much less severe than the effects of contracting the virus itself.
6. What are some common flu shot side effects?
Some people do experience side effects after getting their flu shot. Of those who do, they are usually very mild and diminish on their own. The CDC outlines a few of the more common flu shot side effects:
• Soreness or swelling from the shot
• Muscle ache
These flu shot side effects are perfectly normal. However, there are a few other flu shot side effects that are not as common. These are very rare and may indicate an allergic reaction:
• Wheezing or difficulty breathing
• Swelling around the eyes or lips
• Hives or paleness
• Fast heartbeat
• Dizziness or weakness
7. Are flu shots safe?
Flu shots hold an excellent safety record, according to the CDC. For more than the past 50 years, hundreds of millions of Americans have safely received flu shots. Flu shots come with minimal risks and help ward off the virus — both to protect yourself and the people around you. It is the single best way to avoid catching the flu and spreading it along to others.
8. Is the flu shot necessary?
You are by no means forced to get a flu shot. However, health professionals highly recommend it. A common misconception, particularly among those ages 18 – 49, is that you don’t need a flu shot. Studies have found this age group is the least likely to get vaccinated. Those ages 65 and older are the most likely to get their flu shot.
“Influenza vaccination is important even for healthy people,” Thomas says. “Many people think the flu is a minor illness. However, even a healthy young person can have a severe reaction to this infection. When sick or elderly people get the flu, they may die of additional complications, such as bacterial pneumonia.”
“Influenza vaccination is important even for healthy people.”
Anyone, even those with strong immune systems, can get the flu. Even if you think don’t need a flu shot, getting one can help prevent you from transmitting the flu to others. The more citizens who get their flu shot, the less risk there is for the entire community.
9. How can you prevent the flu?
A flu shot is the best way to prevent the flu. Practicing preventative habits can also cut down on your chances of exposing yourself to the flu.
“Germs like the flu spread when people touch their eyes, nose, mouth, or even the food that they eat,” explains Dr. Tyeese L. Gaines, board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician and Medical Director of UltraMed Urgent Care in Skokie, Illinois. “It’s a good habit to always wash your hands often with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based hand rub, but especially during flu season. Try to avoid close contact with sick people.”
The CDC advises you utilize several health habits to protect yourself:
• Avoid close contact with those who are sick
• Wash your hands thoroughly and often
• Avoid touching your nose, eyes, and mouth — especially when in public
• Disinfect surfaces, especially if someone is sick
• Eat well and get enough sleep
• Stay hydrated
You can also prevent the flu by stopping the spread of germs to others. Always cover your coughs and sneezes. And should you come down with the flu yourself, stay home to avoid spreading the virus.
10. What are common flu symptoms?
If you suspect you’re coming down with the flu, there are several signs to look for. The CDC lists these as the most common symptoms:
• Fever or chills (though not everyone will experience this symptom)
• Cough and sore throat
• Runny or stuffy nose
• Muscle aches
11. Cold vs. flu: What is the difference?
The common cold and the flu are often confused due to their similar symptoms. But the CDC notes one main difference between the two: The cold and the flu are caused by two different types of viruses.
In general, the symptoms of the flu are more severe and more common. Colds are typically milder. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose than those with the flu. They are also much less likely to experience serious complications requiring hospitalization, such as pneumonia or bacterial infections.
12. How long does the flu last?
The flu typically lasts three to seven days, according to the CDC. Serious complications of the flu, such as pneumonia, can take longer to recover from. Some symptoms, such as a cough, can persist for more than two weeks.
Even if you have a quick recovery from the flu, you can still infect others five to seven days after becoming sick. You can even pass the sickness along before you feel any symptoms.
13. How can you treat the flu?
For most people, the flu is mild enough that it does not require medical treatment. The flu will typically run its course within a week. However, sometimes the flu can make people very sick, especially if they are a high-risk population, such as very young children or the elderly.
A doctor can prescribe you antiviral drugs to help you recover more quickly. They can also lessen the severity of your symptoms. Antiviral drugs are most effective when they are taken within two days of falling ill.
14. Are there any home remedies for flu?
Just because you have the flu doesn’t mean you have to be miserable. Here are a few ways to help yourself feel better as your body recovers:
• Take a fever-reducing medicine
• Stay hydrated with plenty of water and other clear liquids
• Get lots of rest
• Try a humidifier to help your congestion
• Add honey to tea for its antibacterial and antimicrobial properties
• Add lemon juice to water for its antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory properties
• Try salt water nose rinsing or gargling for congestion and sore throat relief
• Elevate your head with an extra pillow
Facing the flu
Now that you know how long the flu lasts, what symptoms to watch for, and what you can do to prevent it, you should be better equipped to stay healthy throughout the season.
Being vigilant about healthy habits is one thing to practice, but it can only do so much. Never forget your first line of defense: the flu shot. It’s simply the best way to protect yourself and the people in your community.
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