January 10, 2018 – This influenza (flu) season is hitting hard and early. While symptoms can range from mild to severe, thousands of Americans die from flu-related complications each year and several million people seek medical care for flu. The flu can be nasty.
Because the flu season can easily continue into spring time, it is still not too late to get a flu shot. Vaccine is widely available through medical offices, clinics, and pharmacists. One common misperception is that this season’s shot is not well matched with the flu strains circulating. Actually, the match has been good so far. So why so many reports on the vaccine not working well? The predominant flu virus in California right now is an Influenza A subtype called A(H3N2) and historically the vaccine is only about 30% effective against that subtype even when well matched. While that effectiveness is low, the protection it offers can still translate into tens of thousands of hospitalizations prevented in the US. Plus, getting vaccinated yourself may help protect people around you including those who are more susceptible to serious complications like pneumonia. As a reminder, the type of flu during a season can change which is why the flu vaccine protects against several strains. The first preliminary reports on the actual effectiveness of this year’s vaccine should be available in February.
The flu shot cannot give you the flu as it does not contain flu virus that can infect you. In randomized, blinded studies comparing people who got the flu shot versus those who got salt-water shots, the only difference in symptoms was increased soreness in the arm and redness at the injection site. There were no differences in body aches, fever, cough, or runny nose. The vaccine is very safe and only rarely causes a severe reaction such as a serious allergic reaction. The flu vaccine does not prevent infection from viruses that cause a cold and there are several of those circulating in the winter time as well.
In addition to vaccination, there are everyday preventive measures to limit the spread of flu (and other viruses): stay home if you are experiencing flu-like symptoms and avoid close contact with sick people; cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze; avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth; and clean and disinfect surfaces that may be contaminated with germs. Wash your hands often with soap and water! While it can be really hard to miss work or school, please stay home if you are ill. That will help decrease the impact of flu on our community.
Your doctor can help guide you on the flu vaccine, further preventive measures, and when and if antiviral medication would be helpful; if you are concerned about your symptoms or possible treatment options, please contact your doctor. To keep track of the national flu season and get the latest data and advisories, please see: www.flu.gov.