Expert Q&A: The Flu
Who should get a flu shot and when? Know these and more facts about influenza.
It’s time for flu season. To better prepare us all, we talked with nurse practitioner Gina Vaughn at the Vanderbilt Health and Williamson Medical Center Walk-In Clinic in Franklin about the basics of the flu and how to avoid it.
Question: What is the flu?
Answer: Influenza is a group of viruses that can affect the upper and lower respiratory tracts. The flu virus can cause fever, or the feeling of fever with chills and sweats, runny nose, cough, sneezing, sore throat, body aches and fatigue. Any of those symptoms can be flu-related. It’s important to get the flu vaccine, because the flu vaccine itself can help prevent you from getting the flu. It also helps reduce the length of time you’re sick sometimes, and the severity of symptoms.
Question: When should people get the flu vaccine?
Answer: In our area, the flu usually occurs any time between October all the way through to May. Peak times here generally tend to be December through March. The CDC recommends most people try to get their flu vaccine before the end of October, because it does take about two weeks for your immunity to really kick in. You want to make sure that you’ve gotten it, in case the flu does start circulating in a little bit earlier for us.
Question: Who should get the flu vaccine?
Answer: Anybody over the age of six months who can get the flu shot should and it is really important to get it. One, to protect yourself from getting the flu and risking getting serious complications. But it also provides protection for those around us. There are some high-risk groups out there, like young children, people over 65, pregnant women and anybody with a chronic health condition who can develop very serious side effects or complications from the flu. So when you get the flu vaccine, you’re also providing that protection to those around you. I would expect most of us have at least one person that fits in one of those groups around us.
Question: What are the types of things that can happen to people in those groups?
Answer: Anybody can develop moderate to serious complications from the flu. Moderate complications might include a sinus infection or an ear infection. Or, we can get into more complicated illnesses like pneumonia. People with chronic health conditions like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart disease or even diabetes can have more serious complications when they get the flu.
Question: It’s important to get the shot before the end of October, so right now is when we should really be thinking about getting a flu shot, right?
Answer: Correct. Everybody’s busy, so you might not make it in by the end of October. But that’s OK, because as long as the flu is circulating, you should get the flu vaccine to help prevent the flu. We do continue to offer it throughout flu season. What type of vaccine is offered may vary from clinic to clinic, but all vaccines are appropriate. We want to make sure you are receiving the age-appropriate vaccine.
Question: So there are different types of flu vaccines?
Answer: There are different types of flu vaccines. They are actually not recommending that we use the intranasal live vaccine this season. They’ve found in recent years that the effectiveness just wasn’t what they expected it to be, so the recommendation now is for everybody to have the flu shot itself.
Question: Can you actually get the flu when you get the flu shot?
Answer: No, you cannot get the flu from receiving the flu shot, even the live vaccine. Most of the shots include either inactivated virus or no virus at all. The flu mist does have a live vaccine in it, but it’s lessened to where it should not cause the flu virus.
Question: Sometimes people will get the flu shot and then they’ll get sick. In that case, did they just get sick?
Answer: Most likely. You can feel bad after the vaccine for any number of reasons. Some common side effects to having the flu shot do include some redness, swelling and soreness where you had the shot. You may get a low-grade fever. You may feel kind of achy and not well, but those symptoms are usually very mild and typically only last a couple of days, which is much less than having the flu itself. But some people get the vaccine and then get sick, and they think, “Well, I’ve got the flu.” Well, this time of year, it’s very easy to get another cold or other virus that’s circulating, and it can cause you to feel bad and cause very similar symptoms.
Question: What should you do if you have the flu?
Answer: If you do get the flu, stay home. That’s the biggest thing; stay home and away from other people so you don’t spread the flu. People can be contagious for a day before they even have symptoms, and they’re usually contagious for about five to seven days after their symptoms begin. Our general recommendation is to stay home until you’ve been fever-free without any medication for at least 24 to 48 hours.
It’s very important during this time of year to wash your hands. Keep your hands clean, because you touch multiple surfaces and you can pick up germs. Try not to touch your eyes, nose and mouth too frequently, because that is a good way to contract viruses and illnesses. If you need to cough or sneeze, use a tissue. Throw that tissue away.
But most importantly, if you feel like you’re sick or having the flu, again, stay at home to rest and stay away from your coworkers and friends and family because you don’t want to spread it. It is important to see your healthcare provider with ANY concerns about your symptoms.
Vanderbilt Health operates a variety of walk-in clinics in Middle Tennessee, including some with Williamson Medical Center, to take care of everything from sprains and sport injuries to flu shots, fevers, coughs and rashes. Search locations and learn more about the conditions treated there.
If you do get sick, use our online flu tool to decide whether self-care at home or a visit to your healthcare provider is in order.