Just when we are all breathing a sigh of relief as the COVID epidemic subsides, along comes flu season. While it’s difficult to predict the exact timing of flu activity, it peaks during the winter months of December, January and February. That’s why it’s important to get your flu vaccination now so that your body can be prepared to fight the illness when it hits.
“Flu vaccines have been available since August, but October is the prime month for the general public to get vaccinated,” said Dr. Julie Fashner, a primary care physician with HCA Florida St. Lucie Medical Specialists. “You can get it later, but you might as well have protection before there is a higher prevalence of the flu in the community.”
The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat and sometimes lungs. It can cause mild to severe illness and in some cases death. As with COVID, people with other health problems tend to be the most vulnerable, including many older people. Symptoms can include fever, cough, sore throat, muscle or body aches, headaches, stuffy nose and fatigue.
“There are many different flu viruses and they are constantly changing,” Fashner explained. “It’s really just an educated guess which strain of the virus will be most prevalent in the coming year, so the vaccines are updated annually. This year both the influenza A (H3N2) and the influenza B (Victoria lineage) vaccine components were updated. Even if it’s not the strain that is anticipated, the vaccine will help protect you.”
The CDC recommends that everyone over the age of 6 months get an annual flu vaccination with few exceptions. There are multiple flu vaccines available and all of them are quadrivalent vaccines designed to protect against four different flu viruses, including two influenza A viruses and two influenza B viruses. Different vaccines are licensed for use in different age groups. Most are administered as a shot in the arm with a needle, but there is a nasal spray option as well.
For people younger than 65 years of age, the CDC does not recommend one vaccine over another. Options for that age group include inactivated influenza vaccine (IIV), recombinant influenza vaccine (RIV) or live attenuated influenza vaccine (LAIV).
New for this season, for people 65 years and older, there are three flu vaccines that are recommended by the CDC over standard-dose, unadjuvanted flu vaccines. These are specifically designed help create a stronger immune system. The options for this group are Fluzone High-Dose Quadrivalent vaccine, Flublok Quadrivalent recombinant flu vaccine and Fluad Quadrivalent adjuvanted flu vaccine.
Most of the vaccines are egg-based, so if you are allergic to eggs be sure to tell your healthcare provider and ask for a cell-based or recombinant flu shot, both of which are completely egg free.
Your doctor or pharmacist will advise you as to which flu shot is best suited for you.
“Getting the vaccine is as easy as stopping in your local pharmacy or making an appointment with your primary care doctor,” said Dr. Fashner. “Medicare and most insurances cover the cost and it can be done in a matter of minutes.
“Some people have the misconception that you can actually get the flu from the vaccine. That is simply not true. Only the nasal spray has any live virus in it and it is so weakened that it couldn’t infect you. If someone has a reaction like body aches or fatigue, that is simply an indication that the body is doing its job and preparing to fight the virus.”
So how do you know if you’ve got a common cold, or the flu, or even COVID?
“It’s pretty easy to tell the difference between a common cold and the flu based on the symptoms. A cold manifests with a lot of coughing and sneezing, but not with a fever, aches and pains. The flu produces aches, chills and fever and not so much the runny nose.
“Differentiating the flu from COVID is trickier because the symptoms are very similar, so the only way to be sure is to be tested. If you suspect you have the flu or COVID, it’s better to be tested sooner than later because anti-viral medication for the flu can only be prescribed within the first 48 hours after the onset of symptoms. Medications for COVID can be given beyond that 48-hour period. The flu will last five or six days without any medication and about four to five days with it, so you are going to have to be miserable for a few days regardless.”
If you need both the flu and COVID vaccines, it is 100 percent safe to get them simultaneously, as they will be given in different arms.
Dr. Fashner stressed the importance of continuing to take your regular medications even if you have the flu and you don’t feel like it. Not doing so will put you at a higher risk to go to the hospital.
She also advised to continue the same preventative practices that we learned during the COVID pandemic, like washing hands repeatedly, coughing into your elbow and even wearing a mask, if you desire, for extra protection. Interestingly enough, the flu was nearly nonexistent during winter 2021 when masks were mandated because they stopped the spread of respiratory droplets from person to person.
“I see no downside to getting the flu vaccine at all,” Dr. Fashner concluded. “We know it’s coming, so it’s best to be prepared and make it as tolerable as possible if we do get it.”
Dr. Julie Fashner received her undergraduate degree from Ohio Northern University and her medical degree from Boonshoft School of Medicine at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.
She completed her residency from Dayton Community Family Practice at Good Samaritan Hospital and her fellowship in Primary Care Faculty Development at Michigan State University.
Her office is located at HCA Florida St. Lucie Medical Specialists-Hillmoor located at 1700 SE Hillmoor Dr., Suite 200, Port St. Lucie. Call 772-398-7936 to schedule an appointment.