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What You Need to Know about Flu Season

October 4, 2013

It’s official. Flu season has begun in many states in the U.S., including Georgia. Although flu season typically begins in October, the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) has been tracking flu activity in some areas of the state for several weeks.

Public health professionals urge everyone age 6 months and older to get a flu shot, which is the most reliable way to protect against the virus. But PHWEEK asked Audrey Martyn, DPH’s influenza surveillance coordinator, more about what the 2013-2014 flu season might hold.

PHWEEK: How will this flu season be different from last year's?

Martyn: It’s impossible to predict the upcoming flu season. We know that flu will be circulating in the community, but we cannot guess what the season will be like with respect to the timing, severity or length.  

PHWEEK: What kinds of flu shots are available this year?

Martyn: There are many options available for the influenza vaccine this year. The standard shot is a trivalent vaccine, which prevents against two influenza A strains (one H1 and one H3 virus) and one influenza B virus. The vaccine can be delivered in a shot to anyone age 6 months and older. Those who are age 65 and older are eligible for a high-dose trivalent vaccine shot.  People ages 2-49 can also get the vaccine as a nasal spray. While influenza vaccines typically contain traces of egg, an egg-free trivalent shot is also available and approved for use in people ages 18-49.  

This year, a quadrivalent flu vaccine is also available. This vaccine protects against the same three viruses as the trivalent flu vaccine, plus one additional influenza B virus. The quadrivalent influenza vaccine is available as a shot or a nasal spray, but only healthy individuals ages 2- 49 can get the nasal spray.

You can get more information on all these vaccine types from the CDC.

PHWEEK: Doesn't the flu shot make you sick?

Martyn: You cannot get the flu from the flu shot. Like any medicine, there are possible side effects associated with the vaccine, including a low-grade fever, headache, body aches, fatigue and soreness, redness, itching or swelling around the skin where the shot was given. Severe reactions are rare and typically occur immediately or within a few hours of vaccination. But there are treatments available for these rare events. If you do experience serious reactions to the vaccine, call or go to your doctor immediately. 

Also, the side effects associated with influenza vaccine are minimal when compared to the possible complications associated with being infected with the influenza virus. 

PHWEEK: Is the flu shot the only way to protect yourself against the flu?

Martyn: While the flu shot is an important part of influenza prevention, it’s not the only way to protect yourself against the flu. Remember to always use respiratory hygiene and cough etiquette.  Stay home from work or school if you are ill, cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, wash your hands with non-antimicrobial soap and water and take antiviral drugs if prescribed by your doctor. 

PHWEEK: A lot of illnesses begin with "flu-like symptoms." How do I know if I have something other than the flu?

Martyn: It’s nearly impossible to determine if you have influenza or another virus by symptoms alone. The best way to determine the cause of illness is for your doctor to perform a diagnostic test. The most common is the rapid influenza diagnostic test, which can give your doctor results within 30 minutes. These tests vary in their accuracy. Your doctor may decide to treat you like you have the flu even with a negative rapid test result or not perform the test at all.  

PHWEEK: What else should people know about the flu this season?

Martyn: It’s not too late to get your flu shot! The Healthmap Vaccine Finder can help you find a location near you to get one. 

Children under age 5, adults age 65 and older, pregnant women and people with certain medical conditions are at higher risk of developing complications from the flu. While all people age 6 months and older should get vaccinated, it is particularly important that those who have a higher risk of these complications. Visit the CDC’s website to learn if you are a member of one of these high-risk groups.

Remember that influenza can be treated or prevented with antiviral medication. It’s best to receive antiviral medications within 48 hours of illness onset if your doctor suspects or confirms influenza. 

If you have any questions you can contact me directly at aumartyn@dhr.state.ga.us or call me at (404) 463-4625.