Influenza (flu) is a highly contagious disease that causes 3,000 to 50,000 deaths a year, plus 200,000 hospitalizations annually for flu complications. YOU can prevent flu by getting a flu shot every year. The flu season runs into the spring so it’s not too late to get a flu shot now. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports localized flu outbreaks and says more flu is expected in the coming weeks.

Only about half of all Americans get a flu shot annually. Many cling to myths about flu and flu shots to avoid being vaccinated. Let’s look at the facts:

  • Everyone needs a flu shot, if over the age of six months. They’re especially important for people with chronic illness because they’re more vulnerable to flu’s complications. Flu shots are safe for pregnant women and nursing mothers.
  • You need a flu shot every year because flu viruses change or mutate frequently. The shots are redesigned regularly to target the flu viruses most likely to be in circulation. A flu shot provides good protection for about six months. That’s why it’s best to get a shot at the beginning of flu season, which usually lasts about six months. Flu can sometimes extend into May so now is still a good time to get a shot.
  • Flu shots cannot cause the flu because the shots are made from inactive viruses that cannot cause illness. Some people may feel tenderness at the shot site that lasts a day or two. After getting the shot, it takes about two weeks for your body’s immune system to fully protect you against flu. If you had already been exposed to flu prior to getting the shot, you were going to get sick anyway – with or without the shot. You just waited too long. Don’t make that mistake next year.
  • Free flu shots are available. Most Americans with health insurance can get a free flu shot because it’s part of your preventive benefits. If you’re on Medicare, it’s free if your doctor or other provider accepts Medicare as payment in full. Medicaid beneficiaries do not have to pay for the shot. Children covered by ARKids First get free flu shots. Almost all private and employer-sponsored health insurance covers flu shots as a free preventive benefit.
  • Healthy people need a shot because it can prevent you from spreading flu to others who are especially susceptible to illness. That’s why about 90 percent of doctors and nurses get an annual flu shot.
  • Flu is not just a bad cold. Both are respiratory illnesses but they are caused by different viruses. Flu symptoms are much worse, come on quickly and may include fever, muscle or body aches, headache, extreme tiredness, and children are more likely to have vomiting and diarrhea. Flu can cause serious complications such as pneumonia, bronchitis, and sinus or ear infections. The serious complications triggered by flu can include inflammation of the heart, muscles or brain; multi-organ failure; and blood infection, called sepsis. The complications of flu can also make chronic conditions worse, such as asthma or congestive heart failure. Symptoms of the common cold are much milder and are more likely to cause a runny or stuffy nose. A cold generally does not cause serious complications such as pneumonia, infections or hospitalizations.
  • Kids need a flu shot. If your child gets the flu, he or she will miss school, feel terrible for up to two weeks, could develop complications that require hospitalization, or even die. Why would any parent take such a dangerous risk? Children have a higher rate of infection from flu than adults. The CDC says that flu likely kills many more children than the number confirmed by lab tests. More than 90 percent of children treated for flu in intensive care units last year had not received a flu shot. About half of children who died from flu and its complications were perfectly healthy before getting flu.

Very young children, especially those who have never been vaccinated and are between six months to eight years of age, should have two initial doses of vaccine to build immunity.

  • Tell your doctor if you have these conditions: An egg allergy or allergy to any other ingredients in the shot (ask your doctor about getting a special flu vaccine for those allergic to eggs); a moderate-to-severe illness (delay the shot until you are fully recovered); Guillain-Barre Syndrome (ask your doctor before getting a flu shot).
  • Flu vaccines are available just about anywhere there are medical professionals – doctor’s offices, clinics, hospitals, pharmacies, health departments, urgent care centers and some schools and workplaces.
  • Many studies show that a flu shot reduces flu illness, complications, doctor visits, hospitalizations and missed work due to illness.
  • Treatment for the flu includes staying home so you don’t infect others, resting and increasing fluids. Hot liquids such as herbal tea or chicken soup can soothe a sore throat and provide much needed liquids. The old adage to starve a cold or fever is not based on fact. Try to eat healthy if you have an appetite. Good nutrition will help you heal faster.
  • Antiviral drugs can shorten the time you have symptoms by one to two days. It may be important to take them if you are in a high risk group or very sick. Some research says antivirals can prevent serious flu complications. The sooner you start taking them, the better they will work. Ideally, they should be started within two days of getting sick. Three antivirals have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA): Tamiflu, Relenza and Rapivab. They all require a prescription. Children under age 18 cannot take Rapivab.
  • Antibiotics are completely ineffective against flu viruses. Antibiotics are only effective against bacteria-caused illness such as an infection. However, if you have the flu and it develops into a bacterial infection such as bacterial pneumonia, then your doctor may prescribe antibiotics.