Everyone is back in school, football has kicked off, and your favorite pumpkin flavored latte is back in the coffee shops, which can only mean two things…Fall is upon us and flu season is here! I know with temperatures still in the upper 80s (on a good day), 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 headaches. Flu viruses prove to be deadly each and every year even in those who have no underlying medical conditions. Given that the flu is a virus, antibiotics will not help at all in the recovery process.
It will likely not surprise anyone that by the numbers, the 2017-2018 flu season was just awful. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), last flu season was considered a “high severity” season which is the highest classification level possible. Flu activity really began in November, peaked in January and February, and lasted until late March. There were 19 straight weeks of increased flu activity across the US making last year one of the longest flu seasons in recent history. Perhaps the most terrifying and heartbreaking statistic is that there were 179 pediatric deaths last flu season. With the exception of the 2009 pandemic swine flu season, this is the highest number of children who died from the flu since the CDC started tracking this statistic.
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 every year. Let’s talk about the flu vaccine. Early in the 2017-2018 flu season, there were news headlines stating that the flu vaccine was less than 10 percent effective, which in my opinion, probably caused some people to shy away from the flu vaccine. This headline ended up not being true. In fact, it appears that the flu vaccine for last year was around 40 percent effective which is actually really pretty good for a flu vaccine. Of those 179 children who died from the flu this past season, approximately 80 percent of them were not vaccinated against the flu.
Why can’t the flu vaccine be perfect or have efficacy closer to 95-98 percent like many of our 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. Scientists 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 white blood cell artillery swoops 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 mild fever for 24-48 hours.
There is really no way to predict when flu season will begin or just how bad the flu season might be, so plan now and get your flu shot as soon as possible. At the Baton Rouge Clinic, our walk-in flu clinic is open. It's open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and no appointment is necessary. There will be a flu clinic located on the 4th floor in the main clinic, the 2nd floor in the Pediatric building, and at our Industriplex location.