Common Questions about the 2023 Flu and Flu Shots
Nov 03, 2023 | Flu | Share:
As we enter the winter season, cold and flu (officially called Influenza) seem to be rampant throughout families, friends, and communities. It can be difficult to know which one you are suffering from and how to deal with it best.
It’s important to understand what the differences are between the two so that you know how to overcome them best. In this article, we will briefly look at colds and look at the flu in more detail.
In a hurry? Jump to specific questions below:
- What’s the difference between a common cold and the flu?
- How do I cure the flu?
- Can I get the flu more than once in a season?
- What should I do if I think I have the flu?
- Am I part of a high-risk group?
- When should I get the flu shot?
- Does the flu shot really work?
- What are the benefits of the flu shot?
- Why do I need to get the flu shot every year?
- Is the flu shot safe?
- Should I risk getting the flu instead of a vaccine?
What’s the difference between a common cold and the flu?
You may be under the impression that a common cold and the flu are the same thing. It’s easy to make this assumption as some of the symptoms are similar, but you it is important you know the distinct differences.
Both sicknesses are contagious respiratory illnesses, but they are caused by different viruses. Flu is caused only by influenza viruses, but a common cold can be caused by numerous different viruses.
Cold symptoms come on gradually and can include:
- Slight aches
- A blocked or stuffy nose
- Sore throat coughing
- A slight rise in temperature
Flu symptoms come on very quickly and can include:
- a sudden high temperature
- aching body
- feeling tired or exhausted
- a cough
- a sore throat
- a headache
- difficulty sleeping
- loss of appetite
- diarrhea or stomach pain
- vomiting and nausea
It’s helpful to know that cold and flu symptoms in children are the same in adults as they are in children, but they may last a little while longer in children. If you contract a cold or the flu it’s likely you will recover from it on your own, but the flu can make some people seriously unwell. It can cause complications such as pneumonia, sinus and ear infections, and acute respiratory distress syndrome.
It’s extremely important to get the flu vaccine every year especially if your doctor or health care professional has advised you to.
How do I cure the flu?
The simple answer is you can’t cure the flu. Over-the-counter medicines may provide temporary relief from the symptoms, but they won’t cure your illness.
Most people reach for antibiotics, but they won’t help if you have the flu because they are used for bacterial infections - the flu is caused by influenza viruses.
This isn’t to say you can’t do anything to help you recover from the flu and manage the symptoms. Some things you can do are:
- get plenty of rest;
- drink plenty of fluids;
- treat aches, fever, and coughs with over-the-counter medicines such as ibuprofen and naproxen (note: you should never give aspirin to anyone younger than 19);
- sit in a steamy bathroom to loosen mucus;
- run a humidifier;
- try a lozenge to soothe a scratchy throat;
- use saline drops to unblock your nose;
- and/or ask your doctor for an antiviral (we will discuss this later in this article).
Can I get the flu more than once in a season?
In the U.S., flu illnesses are most common in the fall and winter months – flu activity generally begins to increase in October and can last until May. This is called the flu season.
If you have already had the flu this season or have had the flu shot, you may think you are in the clear. Unfortunately, the reality is that it is still possible to get the flu more than once per flu season.
You may not know this but there are four types of flu viruses: A, B, C, and D.
Types A and B cause seasonal outbreaks of illness in people and are the ones you will most likely experience. Type C usually causes mild infections and isn’t detected as often. Type D primarily affects cattle and is not known to infect or cause illnesses in people.
What should I do if I think I have the flu?
It's important to contact your doctor or healthcare professional as soon as you think you have the flu. They can prescribe you with antiviral medications. These work best when the treatment is started within two days of becoming sick with flu symptoms. They can lessen the fever and flu symptoms and can shorten the time you are sick by about one day. They may also reduce the risk of complications of flu and help prevent a stay in hospital.
Am I part of a high-risk group?
Anyone can get sick with the flu, especially during flu season, but some people run the risk of developing serious complications due to weaker immune systems.
These complications can include bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections, and worsening of chronic medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma, or diabetes.
High-risk groups include:
- young children (under the age of 5 years, especially those under the age of 2 years);
- adults aged 65 years or older;
- people of any age with certain chronic medical conditions (asthma, diabetes, chronic kidney disease or heart disease);
- and pregnant women.
It is important to contact your doctor or healthcare professional as soon as possible if you fall into one of these groups and suspect you have the flu.
When should I get the flu shot?
The best time to get a flu shot is before the flu season begins.
As mentioned before, in the U.S. flu activity generally begins to increase in October and can last until May. It’s best to get the flu shot in September or early October because it means you will be vaccinated before the peak flu season and the protection will last through spring.
The flu shot’s effectiveness starts to decrease after five or six months, so it’s not recommended to get it earlier as it won’t keep you protected through to the end of the season.
Does the flu shot really work?
Vaccine effectiveness can vary from season to season and depends on who is being vaccinated (the age and health of a person).
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) carry out studies each year to see how well flu vaccines protect against flu.
In recent studies, the CDC has found that “flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40% and 60% among the overall population during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to those used to make flu vaccines.”
What are the benefits of the flu shot?
The benefits of the flu shot include:
- being protected from getting sick with the flu;
- reduced severity of illness if you still get sick but have the vaccine;
- a reduced risk of flu-associated hospitalization;
- it is a preventative tool for people with certain chronic health conditions;
- and/or protects pregnant women and the baby (especially in the first few months of life).
Why do I need to get the flu shot every year?
It’s important for you to get the flu shot every year because flu viruses change so quickly. Last year’s vaccine may not protect you from this year’s viruses.
When you get the shot, your immune system makes the antibodies to protect you from the viruses which are included in the shot. But over time, your antibodies may decline, and the effectiveness of the flu shot reduces after five to six months.
To protect you and the people around it’s so important to get the flu vaccine and there are two options available: the flu shot and the nasal spray FluMist.
Both offer the same level of protection, but some people are simply more suited to the shot, and others the spray. If you aren’t sure which one fits you best your doctor or health care professional can tell you which one you should take.
The vaccine is injected into your upper arm if you opt for the shot and the vaccine is sprayed into your nose if you choose the FluMist.
Is the flu shot safe?
A lot of people think you can get the flu illness from the flu shot, but rest assured this is not the case and it is simply a myth.
In a flu shot the viruses are killed (they are inactive) and in a nasal spray the viruses are weakened, so neither can cause flu. Both are very safe, and most people have not side effects at all. But as with all medications and vaccines this is not guaranteed.
There are different side effects that may be associated with getting a flu shot or a nasal spray flu vaccine. The side effects of the flu shot are the same in children and adults and include:
- soreness, redness, or swelling where the shot was given;
- headache (low-grade) fever;
- muscle aches;
- and fatigue.
The side effects of the nasal spray differ in adults and children. Adults may experience:
- a runny nose;
- a headache;
- sore throat;
- and cough.
Side effects of the nasal spray in children can include:
- a runny nose;
- a headache;
- muscle aches;
- and fever (low grade).
It’s important to be aware that the flu shot isn’t suitable for everyone, and some people should not get the flu shot. These include:
- Children under 6 months of age;
- those with severe, life-threatening allergies to any ingredients in the vaccine;
- those who have had a severe allergic reaction to a dose of flu vaccine in the past;
- and/or those who have ever had Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
Should I risk getting the flu instead of a vaccine?
No one can guarantee the flu vaccine is 100% effective, but people who have had the flu vaccine are less likely to get the flu or suffer from added flu-related complications.
CDC studies in 2021 have shown that ‘among adults hospitalized with flu, vaccinated patients had a 26% lower risk of intensive care unit (ICU) admission and a 31% lower risk of death from flu compared with those who were unvaccinated’.
During 2019-2020 vaccinations prevented an estimated “105,000 flu-related” hospitalizations. Flu vaccinations are an important preventative tool for people with some chronic health conditions and separate studies have shown flu vaccinations have reduced hospitalizations for these people.
The flu is highly contagious and by getting the flu vaccine yourself, you are protecting yourself and everyone around you.
Only about half of Americans get the annual flu vaccine, despite the many benefits it offers. Many more people could be protected from the flu if more people got vaccinated.
If you have any concerns about the flu vaccine you can contact your doctor or health care professional, who can give you tailored advice based on your health.
If you want to get the flu vaccine, you can contact:
- your doctor or health care provider;
- Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) supported health centers;
- and/or Employers,
- school and community organizations
Keep yourself, your family and friends, and your community safe by getting the flu vaccine.