While people with mild flu cases may downplay the severity or mistake it for a cold, in some cases, the flu can be far more serious than the common cold. Both diseases are contagious and caused by viruses, but flu symptoms can be more intense and sudden, leading to more serious complications including pneumonia in some cases.
Young children, older adults, and people with chronic conditions are most prone to complications from the flu. Below, Brian Nguyen, DO, a pediatrician with Dignity Health Woodland Clinic answers some common questions about flu season.
"With children returning to school and COVID-19 still present in our communities, it’s very important to take steps to protect your respiratory system," said Dr. Nguyen. "Start by asking your doctor about vaccines and adopting simple flu prevention habits to stay healthy."
How well do flu vaccines work?
The seasonal flu is most commonly caused by influenza A and B viruses. These viruses can mutate, leading to different strains each year. Think of these mutations as disguises the viruses use to evade our immune systems. However, the good news is that vaccines are regularly updated to reflect the circulating flu strains. So, how effective are these vaccines? During seasons when flu vaccine viruses are similar to circulating flu viruses, the vaccine can reduce the risk by 40 to 60%. Vaccinating against the flu can also reduce your risk of being hospitalized or seriously ill. In a 2022 study, flu vaccination reduced children’s risk of severe life-threatening influenza by 75%.
When is the best time to receive the flu shot?
For maximum protection, the best time to receive your vaccine is early in flu season, before the flu starts spreading in your community. Try getting your flu shot as soon as it’s available in your provider’s office or neighborhood pharmacy–usually between September and October. If you miss the fall deadline, all is not lost. Plan to get it as soon as possible before the flu peaks, usually in February.
What are the downsides to getting the flu shot?
Like any drug, vaccines have benefits and risks. In almost all cases, the flu vaccine’s benefits outweigh the potential risks. Common side effects include soreness, redness, headaches, fever, nausea, and muscle aches. These are typically temporary and go away on their own. Life-threatening allergic reactions to the flu shot are rare, but you should always look for unusual symptoms after any vaccine. While some individuals may break out in hives or have trouble breathing within a few minutes to hours after receiving the vaccine, these side effects are uncommon.
Can the flu shot give me the flu?
No, the flu vaccine can’t give you the flu or make you sick. Occasionally, you may feel fatigued, under the weather, or experience other mild side effects, but these typically go away on their own within 24-48 hours. It is also possible to contract the flu before the vaccine becomes fully effective, usually two weeks after vaccination. The most important thing to remember is that the flu vaccine is your best protection during flu season. It’s recommended for everyone 6 months or older. It is also important for pregnant people to get the vaccine so that the baby is protected up to 6 months of age. Talk to your doctor if you have a history of allergic reactions to vaccines or have concerns about other side effects.
What month is the flu season worst, and how long does the seasonal flu last?
The flu traditionally peaks from December through February and can continue into May. It’s wise to get the flu vaccine as soon as it’s available in your community and before the cold winter months, when most people spend more time indoors or in high-traffic places like trains and airports.
What else can I do to prevent the flu?
Hand hygiene and other healthy habits can help repel bacteria and viruses during flu season. Remember to cover your coughs, avoid sharing utensils, and stay home if you have a fever. You can also try different ways to boost your immune system, starting with getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising regularly. It's important to drink water, even if you don't feel thirsty, and avoid tobacco or quit smoking, as smoking can increase the risk of respiratory infections.
The flu is a seasonal respiratory infection that comes around every year. While some people with the flu recover on their own, it can lead to serious complications. Getting the flu vaccine every year is the best way to lower your chance of getting sick with the flu and spreading it to others. The best time to get the flu shot is as soon as it’s available in your community and before temperatures begin to drop, which usually drives people indoors. There are different types of flu shots, including some especially for people 65 and older. Consult your physician or advanced practice provider (APP) about which one is right for you.
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Flu Symptoms & Complications | CDC
Seasonal Flu Vaccines | CDC
Frequently Asked Influenza (Flu) Questions: 2022-2023 Season | CDC
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Flu Shot | Flu | Influenza | MedlinePlus