What's New With the Flu?

Can you believe October is almost over? Football is in full swing, pumpkin spice abounds, and before you know it, Christmas decorations will be popping up in stores. You know what else that means? Flu season is here! You might be thinking...already? Unfortunately, there have already been a number of cases of the flu in my office in the past few weeks, and you may have heard about a school in the area that actually had to close for several days because so many students were sick with the flu. Flu season might be far from your mind, but believe it or not, we will be thinking and talking a lot about that nasty little virus in no time at all. Read on to find out what’s new with the flu.

As a reminder the flu is caused by influenza viruses which can be spread through tiny droplets when someone who is infected with the flu coughs, sneezes or talks. The most common symptoms of the flu include fever, body aches, nasal congestion, runny nose, cough, sore throat, and headache. Given that influenza is a virus, antibiotics will not help at all in the recovery process. The most terrifying thing about influenza is that each and every year this virus kills otherwise completely healthy children and adults. During the 2018-2019 flu season, 136 children died from influenza.

The absolute best way to protect yourself and your children from the flu is for everyone six months of age and older to get a flu vaccine yearly. All flu vaccines approved for children this year will protect against four strains of influenza. The two strains of influenza A have been modified a bit from last years vaccine in hopes of providing even more protection from the strains that are predicted to be circulating this year. The two influenza B strains covered in the vaccine are the same strains from the 2018-2019 flu vaccine. Another update this year is that the American Academy of Pediatrics along with the Center for Disease Control is recommending either the flu shot or the intranasal flu mist spray for anyone 2 years of age or older. This is a change from the past few seasons where the flu mist was either not recommended at all or it was recommended only as a last resort for those that would not take the shot.

People will often ask me why the flu vaccine is not perfect or have efficacy closer to 95-98 percent like many other vaccines? Well, when it comes down to it, the strains that are covered in the flu vaccine each year are just a really educated guess! Since it takes many months to manufacture the flu vaccine, the decision on what specific strains of the virus to include in the vaccine is made approximately six months prior to the start of flu season (which usually means in about February for the following flu season). Through scientific study of prior flu seasons, scientists attempt to predict what strains of flu we will see the following season and then base the vaccine on those predictions. Since the flu virus is ever changing, this is like predicting hurricanes months in advance or who will play for the college football championship six months before college football even starts!

Sometimes the predictions are correct, and sometimes they are not even in the right conference by the time the games are played!

Now, the question I get asked each and every year, “Can the flu shot give me the flu?” The answer is absolutely “NO.”  Think of the influenza virus as a Tootsie pop….the hard candy outside is the outer shell of the virus which cannot cause illness while the tootsie roll inside is the actual virus that can make you sick.  Scientist create the flu vaccine by a process which is able to “kill” the tootsie roll part but leave the outer shell.  When your body sees this outer shell through a flu vaccine, your amazing immune system acknowledges it as “foreign,” and therefore, your white blood cells create a defense artillery against this shell.  Since there is no tootsie pop center present, you cannot get the actual flu virus.  So, in the future if you come into contact with the actual flu virus, which will have that same outer shell like the tootsie pop, your body is able to recognize it and your wonderful white blood cell artillery comes swooping in to eliminate the virus so that you do not get sick.  Yes…our bodies are pretty amazing!  As with any vaccine, there can be very mild side effects from the flu shot.  The most common reactions are discomfort or redness at the injection site and possibly a mild fever for 24-48 hours.

Congratulations! This “reaction” means that your  immune system is working well!

As anyone who has suffered from the flu can attest, it can be miserable! While the flu vaccine is not perfect, it really is your best protection from the flu virus.  Studies have shown that of those children who have died from the flu, usually over 80 percent of them did not receive a flu vaccine. While most of the country is only seeing sporadic cases of influenza virus at this time, that will likely change quickly in the near future.  You can never predict when flu season will “hit” so make sure that your family gets their flu vaccines as soon as possible.


Mindy L. Calandro, MD, FAAP


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