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Seasonal flu, also known as influenza, infects an estimated 17 million to 50 million people in the United States each year. Anyone can get the flu, even healthy people, and serious problems from influenza can happen at any age.

An average of 36,000 people a year die from influenza, and 114,000 a year have to be admitted to the hospital as a result of the virus.

People age 65 years or older, people of any age with chronic medical conditions, and very young children are more likely to have complications from influenza.

Influenza causes approximately 70 million missed workdays and 38 million missed school days a year. The direct and indirect costs of the illness have reached the billions.

What is the flu?

The flu is caused by a virus, so antibiotics such as Penicillin, do not work to cure it. It is different from the common cold and is classically characterized by the sudden onset of fever, often with chills, headache, malaise (general discomfort), diffuse myalgia (muscle pain), and a nonproductive cough. Subsequently, the respiratory tract signs of sore throat, nasal congestion, runny nose, and cough become more prominent.

How is the flu spread?

The flu is spread from person to person by droplets or by direct contact with articles recently contaminated by nasal secretions. During community outbreaks of influenza, the highest attack rates occur among healthy schoolaged children and they in turn can infect others in the community.

How can you protect yourself from the flu?

The best way to prevent the flu is to get an influenza vaccine or flu shot. The flu typically occurs during the colder months, mainly December through March. The optimal time to receive the flu vaccine is October or November, as it takes approximately two weeks for the vaccine to become effective, but influenza vaccines are recommended throughout flu season. Yearly immunization is recommended as the virus strains in the vaccine are changed each year in anticipation of the predominant influenza strains expected to circulate in the United States in the upcoming winter.

Who should receive a flu shot?

A flu shot can be given to anyone who wants to avoid the flu as long as they are 6 months of age or older. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend early vaccination starting in October, or in September if available for:

  • Adults 50 and older
  • Infants 6 to 23 months
  • Individuals 2 to 49 years of age with a medical condition that places them at an increased risk for of having influenza complications (i.e. diabetes, kidney disease, and chronic heart or lung conditions, including asthma)
  • Children under 9 years of age who are receiving their first flu shot (as they will require two doses of the vaccine 1 month apart)
  • Healthcare workers
  • Household contacts of high risk persons

All others seeking vaccination can wait until November when supplies of the vaccine are likely to be more plentiful. It is also recommended that women who will be in the 2nd or 3rd trimester of pregnancy during the influenza season should receive the influenza vaccine along with residents of nursing homes or other long-term care facilities. Children and teenagers 6 to 18 years of age who are on long-term aspirin treatment also should get the vaccine as they could develop a syndrome called Rye Syndrome. The flu vaccine can be administered during the time of a minor illness such as a cold, although it is generally avoided with more significant illness that are accompanied by a fever.

Will I get the flu from receiving the flu shot?

The flu shot cannot give you the flu, but it does take two weeks before someone has immunity and patients often mistake other viral illnesses during that time of the year for the flu.

Who should not receive the flu shot?

People who have severe allergies to eggs, people who have had a severe reaction to a flu shot in the past, and people who develop Guillain-Barre Syndrome within six weeks after getting a flu shot should not get the vaccine.

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