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Preventing the Flu

With flu season just around the corner, many UofA campuses will be hosting flu clinics. If you don’t get a flu shot at your worksite, we encourage you to get one from you local health department or you physician’s office. Flu shots are covered under the UofA health plan at no cost to you.
What is Influenza (Also called flu)?

The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death. The best way to prevent the flu is by getting a flu vaccination each year.
Every year in the United States, on average:

  • 5 percent to 20 percent of the population gets the flu;
  • more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu complications, and;
  • about 36,000 people die from flu.

Older people, young children, and people with certain health conditions, are at high risk for serious flu complications.

Symptoms of Flu

Symptoms of flu include:

  • fever (usually high)
  • headache
  • extreme tiredness
  • dry cough
  • sore throat
  • runny or stuffy nose
  • muscle aches
  • Stomach symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, also can occur but are more common in children than adults.

Complications of Flu

Complications of flu can include bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections, dehydration, and worsening of chronic medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma, or diabetes.

How Flu Spreads

Flu viruses spread mainly from person to person through the coughing or sneezing of people with influenza. Sometimes people may become infected by touching something with flu viruses on it and then touching their mouth or nose. Most healthy adults may be able to infect others beginning one day before symptoms develop and up to five days after becoming sick. That means that you may be able to pass on the flu to someone else before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick.

Preventing Seasonal Flu: Get Vaccinated

The single best way to prevent seasonal flu is to get a flu vaccination each year.

For more about preventing the flu, see the following:

  • Key Facts About Seasonal Flu Vaccine
  • Influenza Antiviral Drugs
  • Good Health Habits for Prevention

When to Get Vaccinated

October or November is the best time to get vaccinated, but you can still get vaccinated in December and later. Flu season can begin as early as October and last as late as May. [Summary of Health Plan Benefits related to Influenza (PDF)]

Who Should Get Vaccinated

In general, anyone who wants to reduce their chances of getting the flu can get vaccinated. However, it is recommended by The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) that certain people should get vaccinated each year. They are either people who are at high risk of having serious flu complications or people who live with or care for those at high risk for serious complications. During flu seasons when vaccine supplies are limited or delayed, ACIP makes recommendations regarding priority groups for vaccination.

People who should get vaccinated each year are:

People at high risk for complications from the flu, including:

  1. Children aged 6 months until their 5th birthday,
  2. Pregnant women,
  3. People 50 years of age and older, and
  4. People of any age with certain chronic medical conditions;
  5. People who live in nursing homes and other long term care facilities.

People who live with or care for those at high risk for complications from flu, including:

  1. . Household contacts of persons at high risk for complications from the flu (see above)
  2. Household contacts and out of home caregivers of children less than 6 months of age (these children are too young to be vaccinated)
  3. Healthcare workers.

Use of the Nasal Spray Flu Vaccine

It should be noted that vaccination with the nasal-spray flu vaccine is always an option for healthy people 2-49 years of age who are not pregnant.

Who Should Not Be Vaccinated

There are some people who should not be vaccinated without first consulting a physician. These include:

  • People who have a severe allergy to chicken eggs
  • People who have had a severe reaction to an influenza vaccination in the past
  • People who developed Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) within Six weeks of getting an influenza vaccine previously
  • Influenza vaccine is not approved for use in children less than six months of age
  • People who have a moderate or severe illness with a fever should wait to get vaccinated until their symptoms lessen.

Vaccine Effectiveness

The ability of flu vaccine to protect a person depends on the age and health status of the person getting the vaccine, and the similarity or "match" between the virus strains in the vaccine and those in circulation. Testing has shown that both the flu shot and the nasal-spray vaccine are effective at preventing the flu.

Vaccine Side Effects (What to Expect)

Different side effects can be associated with the flu shot and LAIV (live attenuated influenza vaccine” or FluMist®).

The flu shot: The viruses in the flu shot are killed (inactivated), so you cannot get the flu from a flu shot. Some minor side effects that could occur are:

  • Soreness, redness, or swelling where the shot was given
  • Fever (low grade)
  • Aches.

If these problems occur, they begin soon after the shot and usually last 1 to 2 days. Almost all people who receive influenza vaccine have no serious problems from it. However, on rare occasions, flu vaccination can cause serious problems, such as severe allergic reactions. As of July 1, 2005, people who think that they have been injured by the flu shot can file a claim for compensation from the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP).

Influenza: The Disease

Influenza Viruses

Picture of microscopic view of flu virusInfluenza (also known as the flu) is a contagious respiratory illness caused by flu viruses. The flu is different from a cold. The flu usually comes on suddenly and may include these symptoms:

  • Fever  (usually high)
  • Headache
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Dry cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle aches
  • Stomach symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, also can occur but are more common in children than adults.

These symptoms are usually referred to as "flu-like symptoms."

Anyone Can Get the Flu, But the Disease Is More Severe for Some People
Most people who get influenza will recover in a few days to less than 2 weeks, but some people will develop life-threatening complications (such as pneumonia) as a result of the flu. Millions of people in the United States — about 5 percent to 20 percent of U.S. residents — will get influenza each year. An average of about 36,000 people per year in the United States die from influenza, and more than 200,000 have to be admitted to the hospital as a result of influenza. Anyone can get the flu (even healthy people), and serious problems from influenza can happen at any age. People aged 65 and older, people of any age with chronic medical conditions, and very young children are more likely to get complications from influenza. Pneumonia, bronchitis, and sinus and ear infections are three examples of complications from flu. The flu can make chronic health problems worse. For example, people with asthma may experience asthma attacks while they have the flu, and people with chronic congestive heart failure may have worsening of this condition that is triggered by the flu.

The Flu Season

In the Northern hemisphere, winter is the time for flu. In the United States, the flu season can range from November to as late as May. During the past 24 flu seasons, months with the heaviest flu activity (peak months) occurred in November, one season; December, four seasons; January, five seasons; February, 10 seasons; and March, four seasons.
The above information was taken from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website at www.CDC.gov

Bar chart showing Peak Months for Flu Activity over the past 24 seasons 1982-83 through 2005-06. February peak month, followed by January, December and March tied. November the least.

How the Influenza Virus Is Passed Around

The main way that influenza viruses are spread is from person to person in respiratory droplets of coughs and sneezes. (This is called "droplet spread.") This can happen when droplets from a cough or sneeze of an infected person are propelled (usually less than 3 feet) through the air and deposited on the mouth or nose of people nearby. Influenza viruses may also be spread when a person touches respiratory droplets on another person or an object and then touches their own mouth or nose (or someone else’s mouth or nose) before washing their hands.

The Flu Is Contagious

Most healthy adults may be able to infect others beginning 1 day before symptoms develop and up to 5 days after becoming sick. Children may pass the virus for longer than seven days. Symptoms start one to four days after the virus enters the body. That means that you may be able to pass on the flu to someone else before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick.  Some persons can be infected with the flu virus but have no symptoms. During this time, those persons can still spread the virus to others.

How To Know if You Have the Flu

Your respiratory illness might be the flu if you have sudden onset of body aches, high fever, and respiratory symptoms, and your illness occurs during the usual flu season in the Northern Hemisphere. However, during this time, other respiratory illnesses can cause similar symptoms to the flu. In addition, influenza can also occur outside of the typical flu season. It is impossible to tell for sure if you have the flu based on symptoms alone. Doctors can perform tests to see if you have the flu if you are in the first few days of your illness.

What You Should Do If You Get the Flu

  • Rest
  • Drink plenty of liquids
  • Avoid using alcohol and tobacco
  • Take medication to relieve the symptoms of flu

Influenza is caused by a virus, so antibiotics (like penicillin) don't work against influenza. However, bacterial infections can occur at the same time or follow an influenza infection. The best way to prevent the flu is to get an influenza vaccine each fall, before flu season. October or November is the best time to get vaccinated, but getting vaccinated in December or even later can still be beneficial since most influenza activity occurs in January or later in most years.

Your doctor may recommend use of an antiviral medication to help treat the flu. These are prescription medications, and a doctor should be consulted before the drugs are used. Antiviral treatment lasts for 5 days and must be started within 2 days of illness. Therefore, if you get flu-like symptoms, seek medical care early.

Do Not Give Aspirin To a Child or Teenager Who Has the Flu

Never give aspirin to children or teenagers who have flu-like symptoms – and particularly fever – without first speaking to your doctor. Giving aspirin to children and teenagers who have influenza can be associated with a rare, but serious illness, called Reye syndrome. Children or teenagers with the flu should get plenty of rest, drink lots of liquids, and take medicines that contain no aspirin to relieve symptoms.

The Myth of the "Stomach Flu"

Many people use the term "stomach flu" to describe illnesses with nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. These symptoms can be caused by many different viruses, bacteria or even parasites. While vomiting, diarrhea, and being nauseous or "sick to your stomach" can sometimes be related to the flu – particularly in children – these problems are rarely the main symptoms of influenza. The flu is a respiratory disease and not a stomach or intestinal disease.