It's flu season in the United States, and while the severity of the influenza virus varies from year to year, experts suggest flu shots and other preventative measures help minimize widespread infection. The United States experiences flu epidemics every year, and an estimated 9.2 million to 35.6 million flu illnesses have occurred since 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), resulting in 140,000-710,000 flu-related hospitalizations.
Maggie Hagan, MD, infectious disease specialist at Via Christi, says that while it’s not known beforehand how bad this year’s flu epidemics will be or when it will hit, it’s important to always be prepared and vaccination is part of being prepared.
“In the past, people have raised the question of whether or not it’s too early to be vaccinated in September or October if the flu doesn’t hit until February or March,” Dr. Hagan said. “I don’t think so. If you vaccinate by the end of October or early November, then you’re protected for that flu season.”
Dr. Hagan says that the problem with waiting to be vaccinated is if you don’t get vaccinated until flu is being spread throughout the community, it takes a few weeks for your vaccine to kick in and cause immunity and you may get sick before the vaccine’s effective.
“Vaccination is the single most important thing we do to prevent the flu,” Dr. Hagan said.
Here are five commonly asked questions about the flu and how to prevent it:
What is the flu?
- The flu is “a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza virus,” and it directly infects the throat, nose and lungs, according to the CDC. The flu can cause mild to severe illness and can be fatal. Flu symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue.
When is flu season?
- Flu viruses are most common during the fall and winter, although they can be found year-around in the United States and may be more prevalent in certain regions at certain times. According to the CDC, viruses usually begin in October and peak between December and February.
Why are flu shots important?
- Each year the influenza virus comes in different forms, and the seasonal flu vaccine is updated to better match the flu virus that is expected to be most common. According to the CDC, the flu vaccine typically protects against several forms of the virus, and it’s recommended that everyone 6 months or older receive the flu shot annually.
Who is most at risk for contracting the flu?
- The flu can affect all populations, but the highest risk of complications typically occur among pregnant women, children under five years of age, the elderly, and individuals with chronic medical conditions, according to World Health Organization. Because of their close contact with the virus, healthcare workers are also at a higher risk.
Aside from a flu shot, what else can I do to prevent the flu?
- A number of additional precautions can be taken to ensure you avoid contracting the flu, including avoiding close contact with those who are sick and washing your hands regularly. Physicians also recommend getting plenty of sleep and covering your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.