Flu season: Questions about influenza and vaccines answered

October typically marks the start of the United States’ annual influenza season.

Are you prepared?

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Here are some common questions and answers about flu season that can help you minimize your risk of getting ill.

1. When is flu season and how long does it last?

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As noted above, flu season normally starts in October and usually ends by May, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Peak season (when influenza viruses are circulating the most) is generally between December and March and can vary from state to state.

2. Who should get a flu vaccine?

A pediatrician prepares to give a vaccination. Credit: Getty Images.

Everyone except for babies under 6 months old should get a flu shot to minimize the spread of viruses, according to the CDC.

The best time to get the vaccine? Epidemiologists say the earlier the better (i.e., by the end of October) because it takes two weeks for the human body to build up antibodies that can protect you against influenza. Still, getting the shot later is better than not getting it at all.

There are multiple flu vaccines, depending on your age and your health. Check with your provider to see which one is best for you.

3. I got a flu shot last year. Why do I need it again?

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First, your immunity declines over time. But most importantly, there are multiple variations of influenza virus. Seasonal flu is caused by the Influenza A and Influenza B viruses.

And the strains of these viruses can — and typically do — change from year to year.

So each year, epidemiologists look at the viruses circulating around the world and include inactive strains of three or four of the ones most likely to cause illness in the annual vaccine. That means the flu shot you get this year may be slightly different from the one you received in previous years.

For example, in 2009, the H1N1 flu virus (a variation of Influenza A) caused the first global flu pandemic in 40 years.

I don’t like shots and neither do my kids. Can we do the nasal spray instead?

The CDC is advising against the nasal spray again this year. Studies have indicated it is not effective in protecting against the virus.

4. Will the vaccine make me sick?

Flu shots, or vaccines, will not make you sick. Credit: Getty Images

No. The flu shot contains either small amounts of inactive virus or no virus at all. So the vaccines will not give you the flu.

That said, some people do report that their arm hurts after receiving the injection or that they feel tired or achy or a little feverish. However, those symptoms, when they occur, typically only last 24-48 hours, the CDC says, and are much more mild than the symptoms you would have if you actually become infected with an influenza virus.

5. Which states are already seeing flu cases?

The CDC says five states have reported “local” flu activity this year. Credit: Getty Images.

The CDC tracks influenza cases on a weekly basis. For the most current week available, five states — California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Oklahoma and South Carolina — reported what’s called “local” flu activity. That means it’s circulating in one region of the state.

Thirty-eight other U.S. states reported “sporadic” cases of the flu, which means local health officials and laboratories have confirmed a small number of cases of the virus.

6. What are the symptoms of the flu?

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Many individuals mistake a stomach bug or vomiting and fever for the flu. But the CDC defines influenza symptoms as the following:

  • Fever or feeling feverish/chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue (tiredness)

Vomiting, when it does occur, is typically more common in children. And not everyone who has the flu will get a fever. The only way to know for sure if you have influenza is to go see a doctor and get tested.

7. What else can I do to keep my family from getting sick?

The CDC recommends regular hand washing to prevent sickness. Credit: Getty Images.

According to the CDC, you should:

  1. Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  2. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing.
  3. Wash your hands often with soap and water or an alcohol-based rub.
  4. Avoid touching eyes, nose or mouth and then touching someone or something else.
  5. Get plenty of sleep, drink lots of fluids and eat nutritious food.

The best way to prevent spreading the flu? Stay home when sick and don’t return to work or school unless fever-free for 24 hours without medication.

Watch: CDC explains ‘Take 3’ for seasonal flu prevention.

Watch: Flu season – What to know about the (sometimes) deadly virus.

Watch: Banner Urgent Care talks about the flu and symptoms, prevention and tips on what to do if you contract it.

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