What You Need to Know About the Flu

It’s that time of year again. Flu season has become an expected milestone on the calendar, but each year brings new risks in the constant fight against this illness. Here are some facts about influenza from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that you might be surprised to find out.

1. The flu is not one virus.

     There are three types of the influenza virus known in the medical and research communities as A, B, and C. Influenza A and influenza B are divided into different strains depending on their genetic makeup. These two types are responsible for flu epidemics each winter. The third type, influenza C, can cause mild flu symptoms but is not believed to result in widespread illness.

2. Influenza viruses are constantly changing.

     Small changes are always occurring to the influenza virus. This is why it is important to get vaccinated each year. Even if your immune system created antibodies to the flu in the past, they may not recognize a modified version of the virus, and you can get sick again. Sometimes, instead of small changes over time, the virus can develop a dramatic mutation causing it to be more severe. An example of this is the 2009 H1N1 virus outbreak when a strain of animal influenza A developed a major change that resulted in the first flu pandemic in over 40 years.

3. Not all vaccines are alike.

     Most vaccines protect against three strains of the flu. This year, the most common vaccine protects against two influenza A viruses and one influenza B virus.

     There are also several different ways to get the vaccination depending on age and other medical conditions. Most people can receive all the benefits of a vaccination from the standard shot, but a doctor can provide information on other options for protecting yourself such as a nasal spray or a high-dose vaccine.

4. You can still get sick if you’ve been vaccinated.

     Research has predicted the three strains protected by this year’s standard vaccine are the most likely to cause an epidemic during the upcoming flu season. This research is reliable but not perfect. However, getting a flu shot will improve your chances of staying healthy.

5. You can spread the flu before you even know you’re sick.

     The flu is believed to spread mainly through moisture when a sick person sneezes or coughs. Droplets can land on surfaces or travel through the air and infect others in the vicinity. One factor that allows the flu to spread so quickly is that a person can be contagious one day before they develop symptoms. This underscores the importance of disinfecting frequently touched surfaces and being diligent about washing your hands.

6. Certain groups of people are at high risk of severe symptoms

     It may not be a surprise that children and the elderly are more likely to contract the flu, but other groups are also at risk for severe symptoms that may require hospitalization.  People with asthma, diabetes, heart disease, HIV or AIDS, and pregnant women are among the groups that should be especially careful to avoid the flu. These conditions increase the risk that other complications such as pneumonia and bronchitis will develop. Too see a list of all groups at high risk, visit CDC.gov.

7. There is a national flu vaccine week!

     National Influenza Vaccination Week is December 8-14, 2013. This week is meant to raise awareness about the importance of getting a flu vaccine each year to protect yourself and those around you from coming down with the flu. If you haven’t already, take some time to visit a doctor or clinic for your flu shot during this week and encourage family and friends to do the same.