It begins with sprawling congestion, muscle aches and progresses with an intense headache and unnerving fatigue: it’s influenza.
Often referred to as the flu, a contagious viral infection that attacks an individual’s respiratory system, the virus affects upwards of 20% of the U.S. population each year. Despite a peak from December to February, there are proactive measures that patients can take to minimize the risk of contracting and spreading the virus.
The Flu vs. Your Body
Influenza viruses invade the body by infecting the nose, throat and lungs. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that between 3% and 11% of the U.S. population develops annual flu-type symptoms. Symptoms range in severity, but often include a fever, chills, cough, chest pressure, swollen lymph nodes and dehydration.
The flu is highly contagious and spreads through airborne respiratory droplets from coughing and sneezing. Close skin-to-skin contact with an infected individual, sharing drinks or touching contaminated surfaces like doorknobs can also transmit the virus.
Those exposed to the flu often begin to experience initial symptoms within the first two days, but sometimes it can take longer. Adults can be contagious starting the day before their symptoms even appear.
Though common, the flu may be life-threatening for patients in high-risk groups. Newborns, elderly adults, pregnant women, those with weak immune systems and chronic diseases like diabetes or high blood pressure, are especially high-risk.
Prevention is Possible
Patients can protect their health and greatly reduce their risk of contracting the virus with consistent hand washing, avoiding those who are ill and by maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Receiving an annual influenza vaccination, known as “the flu shot,” can also help prevent severe complications that result in lengthy hospitalizations. “Flu shots are an important way to keep your family healthy,” said Zachary Baeseman, Family Medicine Physician at ThedaCare. “Last year, many did not get the flu shot because influenza activity was low. This year will likely be different.”
According to Dr. Baeseman, about 40-60% of his patients receive a flu shot each year, a number that varies depending on seasonal flu trends. That said, he encourages all patients to receive the vaccine, not only for themselves, but others around them.
Benefits of receiving the influenza vaccine include:
- Gaining immunity against strains of the virus
- Limiting community spread
- Reducing the number of flu-related hospitalizations
- Lowering the rate of acute respiratory infections amongst pregnant women
- Helping to prevent more serious complications in high-risk patients
“The most important thing a flu shot can do is reduce your risk of being hospitalized or dying from influenza,” said Dr. Baeseman, “It can also help reduce the amount of work that may be missed if you get sick.”
Debunking the Myths
There are many misconceptions about the flu shot and what it does – and doesn’t do.
“The biggest myth about the flu shot is that people get sick after they receive the shot,” explained Dr. Baeseman. “Vaccinations do not lower immunity, they strengthen
immunity. If you feel under the weather a few days after receiving the flu shot, it’s a good sign and means your body is responding positively to the vaccination.”
Following extensive research, vaccination against influenza began in 1945. Today, all flu vaccines in the United States are quadrivalent, protecting against four different flu viruses: Influenza A (H1N1), Influenza A (H3N2) and two Influenza B variations.
“There are now preservative and egg-free versions of the vaccine if patients have any concerns with ingredients,” said Dr. Baeseman.
Understanding how the vaccine works is crucial. Viruses cannot reproduce in warmer temperature areas, such as the lungs. The vaccine instead causes antibodies to develop in the body and provide a barrier to fight infection.
“It reduces the severity of symptoms, it does not often prevent disease entirely” said Baeseman, “If a patient’s symptoms from influenza are reduced by 40-60% because they got a shot, then it is less likely they will catch a bacterial pneumonia in the second week of their influenza course.”
The vaccine can also help prevent costly hospitalizations. On average, 200,000 Americans are hospitalized each year with complications arising from the flu, resulting in an astounding $10 billion in medical bills.
According to a 2021 study conducted by the Influenza Division at the CDC, compared to unvaccinated patients, flu vaccination was associated with a 26% lower risk of ICU admission and a 31% lower risk of death from the flu.
Scheduling an Appointment
Vaccine manufacturers estimate that they will supply nearly 200 million doses of the influenza vaccine for the 2021-2022 season. Patients interested in receiving an annual vaccine should schedule an appointment with their provider or visit the nearest ThedaCare walk-in clinic.
ThedaCare is committed to helping patients transform their lives through access to excellent care. The long-term health of our patients is top priority, and a flu vaccination is an important step in achieving optimal health and prevention against illness.
Schedule your vaccine at a location and time convenient for you – it’s worth the shot!