National Influenza Vaccination Week (NIVW) is an annual observance that is being celebrated December 6–12 this year. NIVW is a way to bring awareness to the importance of annual flu shots and a reminder that it is not too late to get one for this flu season. In fact, with the COVID-19 pandemic experiencing an uptick in cases and hospitalizations right now, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) believes it is more important than ever to protect yourself, your family, and your community from the flu since flu symptoms may be confused with those that cause COVID-19. People thinking they have the flu may instead have COVID-19 and not know it. Also, preventing and reducing the severity of the flu may help lessen the burden placed on health-care systems when they are being taxed with COVID-19 cases.
What Is the Flu, and Who Is at Risk?
The word “flu” is short for “influenza,” a viral infection that attacks the respiratory system, including the nose, throat, and lungs. Sometimes the word “flu” is mistakenly given to stomach viruses that cause diarrhea and vomiting. Although the respiratory flu can include vomiting and diarrhea, these symptoms are more common in children than adults.
Flu symptoms tend to resolve on their own, but sometimes influenza causes complications that can be deadly. People at high risk for the flu include the following:
- Infants under age 6 months
- Children under age 5
- Adults over age 65
- Residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities and the people who work in them
- Pregnant women, especially those in the second and third trimesters, and women up to two weeks postpartum
- People with weakened immune systems due to treatments such as chemotherapy, long-term steroid use, organ transplant, or HIV/AIDS
- Native Americans, possibly due to socioeconomic factors
- People with chronic illnesses, including asthma, heart disease, kidney disease, liver disease, and diabetes
- People who are obese, with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or higher
Symptoms of the Flu
The first signs of the flu resemble those of a cold: runny nose, sneezing, and a sore throat. But whereas colds tend to develop slowly, the flu comes on suddenly. And symptoms tend to make you feel much worse than symptoms of a cold.
Common flu signs and symptoms are:
- Muscle aches
- Chills and sweats
- Dry, persistent cough
- Shortness of breath
- Tiredness and weakness
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Sore throat
- Eye pain
- Vomiting and diarrhea in children
When to See a Doctor
Most people can treat themselves with the flu by resting, drinking extra fluids, and taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen for fever and body aches (aspirin is OK for adults, but never give aspirin to children and teens). Sometimes, though, flu symptoms can lead to complications.
Adults experiencing the following emergency signs and symptom should seek immediate medical attention:
- Difficulty breathing or experiencing shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Ongoing dizziness
- Worsening of existing medical conditions
- Severe weakness or muscle pain
Emergency signs and symptoms in children include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Blue lips
- Chest pain
- Severe muscle pain
- Worsening of existing medical conditions
Although antibiotics will not help with the flu, taking antivirals can sometimes reduce the length of the illness and prevent more-serious problems from occurring.
Antivirals are prescription medicines that are recommended for people who have flu infection or suspected infection or those who are at high risk of serious complications, such as people with asthma, diabetes, or heart disease. The four antivirals approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are:
- oseltamivir phosphate (Tamiflu)
- zanamivir (Relenza)
- peramivir (Rapivab)
- baloxavir marboxil (Xofluza)
Studies show antivirals work best for treating the flu if taken within two days of getting sick, but they can be started later and still be beneficial. Consult your doctor regarding your need for an antiviral.
What Causes the Flu?
Similar to how the SARS-CoV-2 virus spreads COVID-19, influenza is spread when the flu virus travels through the air in droplets when someone who is infected sneezes, coughs, or talks. The droplets can be inhaled directly or transmitted from an object, such as a telephone, and then transferred to your eyes, nose, or mouth when you touch your face.
People are contagious with the flu virus from about one day before symptoms appear until five days after they start. Children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems may be contagious for a slightly longer period of time.
The flu virus constantly changes, with new strains appearing regularly. If you have had influenza in the past, your body has already developed antibodies to fight that specific strain of the virus should you contract it again. But because new influenza strains are developing all the time, it is likely that you are not protected from new flu viruses.
The flu typically is not serious to the young and healthy, but it can produce symptoms that feel miserable. In most people, the flu lasts a week or possibly two, with no lasting side effects. People in high-risk situations, however, may suffer from the following complications:
- Asthma flare-ups
- Heart problems
- Ear infections
- Acute respiratory distress syndrome
Pneumonia is the most serious condition and, if untreated, can lead to death.
The CDC recommends an annual flu vaccination for everyone over age 6 months. Although it is not foolproof, the flu vaccine can reduce the risk of contracting the flu and lower the risk of getting serious complications. Each year’s flu vaccine provides protection from the three or four circulating influenza viruses, depending on which vaccine you get.
Vaccine options this year include the following:
- Standard-dose flu shots
- High-dose flu shots for people over age 65
- Shots made with adjuvant (promotes a better immune response) for people over age 65
- Shots made with the virus grown in a cell culture (no eggs are used)
- Shots made using a vaccine production technology
- Live attenuated influenza vaccine (made with weakened live virus that is administered by nasal spray)
Since the flu vaccine is not 100 percent effective, it is still important to take measures to reduce the spread of influenza. Such measures can also help prevent COVID-19. They include:
- Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds at a time, using warm water and soap
- Using hand sanitizer to disinfect hands when soap and water are not available
- Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing
- Clean surfaces regularly with antibacterial spray or soap and water
- Wear a mask when outside the home and avoid crowds
- Avoid anyone who is sick or thinks they may be getting sick
- Social distancing (staying at least six feet from another person not in your household)
Visit the CDC website for a brief podcast featuring Erin Kennedy, M.D., on the importance of getting vaccinated for the flu this year. And for more information on the flu vaccine, including this week’s events, visit the CDC website.
Herrick Library Resources on the Flu
The following books and DVDs on the flu and other viral diseases can be reserved and checked out from Herrick Library via curbside pickup or in OverDrive, where indicated*:
- Anatomy of a Pandemic: This DVD examines the major issues surrounding the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus outbreak.
- Contagion: This DVD starring Matt Damon and Kate Winslet is a thriller centered on the threat posed by a deadly disease and an international team of doctors tasked with handling the outbreak.
- Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus, by David Quammen: A book that reads like a mystery novel, Ebola describes the history of the animal-borne virus, the outbreaks that have occurred to date, and personal accounts of people who experienced the disease among family and friends.
- The End of Epidemics: The Looming Threat to Humanity and How to Stop It, by Jonathan Quick: A compelling and readable plan to prevent worldwide infectious outbreaks.
- The Good Doctor’s Guide to Colds & Flu, by Neil Schachter: A Mount Sinai lung specialist explains how to avoid illness, boost immunity, and combat congestion caused by the flu, colds, sinusitis, bronchitis, and other infectious diseases.
- The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History, by John Barry: This well-researched book details the major influenza outbreak of 1918 and the lessons learned from that devastating pandemic.
- I Am Legend: A DVD starring Will Smith about the last human survivor in what is left of New York City after a pandemic strikes.
- Influenza: The Hundred-Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History, by Jeremy Brown: An emergency room physician, Brown explores the troubling, terrifying, and complex history of the flu virus from the origins of the flu pandemic of 1918 that killed millions and still kills more than 30,000 people each year.
- A Little Spot Stays Home: A Story about Viruses and Safe Distancing, by Diane Alber: A picture book that teaches kids how germs are spread, how viruses can cause pandemics, and why washing hands and social distancing are important.
- Soap, Water, and Common Sense: The Definitive Guide to Viruses, Bacteria, Parasites, and Disease*, by Bonnie Henry: A leading epidemiologist and public health doctor guides the reader on fighting coronavirus, flus, pandemics, and other deadly diseases.
- The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic and a New Pandemic Age, by Nathan Wolfe: Wolfe, a biologist at Stanford University, reveals the origins of the world’s most deadly diseases and how to combat and stop future contagions.
Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Influenza (Flu), What Are Flu Antiviral Drugs, https://www.cdc.gov/flu/treatment/whatyoushould.htm; CDC, Influenza (Flu), What You Need to Know for 2020–2021, https://www.cdc.gov/flu/season/faq-flu-season-2020-2021.htm; Indian Health Service, American Indians, Alaska Natives, and the Flu, https://www.ihs.gov/forpatients/healthtopics/influenza/aianflu/#:~:text=Protect%20Indian%20Country%20by%20Getting%20Your%20Flu%20Vaccine&text=Experts%20aren’t%20sure%20exactly,care%20and%20crowded%20living%20conditions; Mayo Clinic, Influenza (flu), https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/flu/symptoms-causes/syc-20351719; Mayo Clinic, Self-Care for the Flu, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/swine-flu/expert-answers/swine-flu-symptoms/faq-20058379
Graphics: Boston Public Health Commission, https://bphc.org/onlinenewsroom/Blog/Lists/Posts/Post.aspx?ID=877; CDC, https://www.cdc.gov/flu/resource-center/nivw/activities.htm#socialmedia