Written By Cathy Hennies, M.D., Family Medicine Specialist at Regional Health
One hundred years ago, a particularly nasty strain of influenza turned up at Fort Riley, Kansas. The virus caught a ride to Europe with American soldiers sent to fight in World War I. From there, it spread throughout the world. By the time it ran its course, the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 claimed 50 to 100 million lives.
Medicine has come a long way in 100 years, and influenza is no longer the public health menace it was in 1918. A big reason for that is the development of influenza vaccines that protect us from the disease.
However, the vaccine can’t protect you and your family if you don’t get vaccinated. It’s not too late. The flu virus can run as late as May and typically peaks between December and March. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone six months of age and older receive an annual flu vaccine.
Although infants younger than six months are at high risk for serious flu-related complications, they are too young to get a flu shot. In order to protect them, it is beneficial for their parents, siblings and grandparents to be vaccinated in an effort to protect the infants. Other people at high risk for influenza complications include pregnant women, children under five, adults 65 years and older and residents of nursing homes. If you have underlying medical conditions such as asthma or other chronic lung disease, heart disease or a weakened immune system, you may also be at higher risk of developing serious flu-related complications.
There are multiple flu vaccines available, and not all flu vaccines can be given to people of all ages. Talk to your doctor to see which vaccine options are best for you and your family.
The vaccine contains the DNA of the influenza virus. When it is introduced into your body, your immune system develops the antibodies that can kill the virus. Even though the vaccine is developed from the influenza virus, it can’t cause the flu. The vaccine either contains an inactivated virus or, in the case of the nasal mist vaccine, a weakened virus that cannot give you the flu. Some types of vaccine are developed using chicken eggs, but there are vaccines available for those with an egg allergy.
It takes about two weeks after vaccination to develop immunity to influenza. The flu vaccine protects against influenza (sudden onset of fever, cough, body aches) only. It doesn’t protect against other illnesses such as the common cold or the stomach flu. The flu vaccination has been shown to reduce severity of illness in people who get vaccinated but still get sick with influenza. This can sometimes mean the difference between being hospitalized and being able to manage your symptoms at home.
What else can you to do keep yourself and your family healthy during flu season? If you are sick, stay home. This is a very important step to prevent the spread of the virus. In addition, cover your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing. Lastly, wash your hands often.
If you do get sick, antiviral medications may be an option. On average, these medications reduce symptoms by two days and can sometimes prevent serious health problems that can result from flu illness. In some cases, antiviral medications are used to prevent flu. However, the best prevention is still the vaccination. The flu vaccine prevents millions of illnesses and flu-related doctor visits each year.
Even though medicine has significantly changed in the past 100 years, influenza is still nothing to sniff at. According to the CDC, the 2017-18 flu season caused more than 900,000 hospitalizations and 80,000 deaths nationwide. The flu vaccine still offers the best defense against getting the flu and spreading it to others.