The flu season is upon us, and if you're wondering if it'll be mild, moderate or severe, good luck finding the answer to that time-worn question.
The only thing we can predict about the flu season is that it will be unpredictable, says Serese Marotta. This former environmental scientist now serves as chief operating officer for Families Fighting Flu, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to saving lives and reducing hospitalizations associated with the influenza virus.
Marotta knows the capricious nature of flu all too well, and that flu does not discriminate: Sadly, in 2009, she lost her five-year-old son, Joseph, to the virus.
Flu is nothing to sneeze at: This respiratory disease can cause numerous secondary complications, affecting many target organs in our bodies.
It is most common in the fall and winter but can stick around as late as May and is already circulating in some areas of the U.S., says Marotta, who points out there are already media reports of people having lost their lives to flu this season.
But there is a way to protect ourselves, our families and our communities, she says. How? By getting the annual flu vaccine—our best defense against this virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 80,000 people lost their lives to complications from flu during the 2017-2018 flu season. Among the most susceptible are young children, pregnant women, seniors and people with existing medical conditions like asthma and diabetes.
"At Families Fighting Flu, we know how dangerous the flu can be, so we encourage people to get vaccinated as early as possible in the season," Marotta says. That's because it can take up to two weeks post-vaccine for your body to build the immunity it needs to fight the flu.
Currently, the CDC recommends annual flu vaccines for everyone six months or older, although there are rare exceptions to this rule. People who have had a life-threatening allergic reaction to the vaccine in the past or a reaction to any ingredient in the vaccine should let their doctor know before getting a vaccine. The same goes for those who have the immune system disorder Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
Check out our Flu Education Resource for HCPs.
How to choose from the various vaccines that are available? Marotta encourages everyone to have a conversation with a trusted health care professional like a physician or pharmacist (yes, they're trained in administering vaccines) to determine which is best. Currently available are the inactivated influenza vaccine (IIV), recombinant influenza vaccine (RIV) and live attenuated influenza vaccine (LAIV). Marotta said there are trivalent (containing 3 flu strains) and quadrivalent (containing 4 flu strains) vaccines available.
Additionally, the nasal spray flu vaccine (FluMist)—which was off the market for two years and which varies in effectiveness from year to year depending on the circulating flu strains and other factors—is approved by the CDC this year for use in non-pregnant individuals ages 2 through 49 (but people with certain medical conditions should not get it).
"The manufacturer of the nasal spray flu vaccine has included a new H1N1 vaccine component, and some data suggest that this will result in improved effectiveness compared to past years. However, we will not have effectiveness data for this particular flu vaccine until after the 2018-2019 season," Marotta points out.
Some people think they will catch the flu from receiving the vaccine, but this not true. The flu vaccine contains an inactivated or attenuated flu virus or no flu virus at all, and Marotta says it's impossible for the vaccine to give you the flu.
Read more about Flu Shot Myths.
Common side effects like soreness or redness at the injection site, fever, headache and/or muscle aches "are evidence that your body is mounting an immune response like it's supposed to do in order to get ready to fight the flu virus," she says.
Reasons to get vaccinated are many and far-reaching. "To understand the importance of getting an annual flu vaccine, you need only to look at the family stories we have on the Families Fighting Flu website that illustrate how seriousness and life-threatening the flu can be, even to healthy children and adults.
"We know annual flu vaccination is our best defense against the flu," Marrotta says, "and we encourage everyone to get their annual flu vaccine, not only to help protect their individual health, but also to help protect their loved ones and others within their community. We refer to this as community immunity. The more people that are vaccinated against the flu, the less the flu can spread."