12 Facts You Probably Didn’t Know About the Flu
By Brianna McCabe
It’s that time of the year when sniffles, achoo-s, and tissue blows echo through the crisp winter air in a somewhat harmonious melody. This tune tends to be the loudest and most prevalent, though, in the waiting rooms of doctor offices as patients scramble in with sicknesses.
For most patients, it’s more than just the winter blues; it’s the winter flu.
The flu (influenza) is a contagious respiratory disease caused by influenza A or B viruses that attack the body by spreading through the upper and/or lower respiratory tract. Since 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that influenza has resulted in between 9.2 and 35.6 million illnesses in the United States.
Despite the prevalence of the flu, Sangeeta Agarwal, M.D., an internal medicine physician at Hackensack Meridian Health Medical Group, and Anjali Gupta, M.D., an internal medicine provider at Hackensack Meridian Health Medical Group, explain that there are 12 facts about the virus that many of their patients don’t know:
Flu season can last into May. “Although we start to see the flu come around in October and November and then see it really peak throughout the months of December to February, the flu virus can linger until May – and sometimes even a bit after,” shares Dr. Gupta.
You can pass on the flu before you know you are sick. According to Dr. Agarwal, a person can be exposed to the flu and not develop symptoms for a few days. “Any type of contact can then spread the flu,” she says. “If you sneeze near someone without covering your mouth or even rub your nose and then shake a person’s hand, the other person can then get the flu.” Handwashing, hand sanitizing and personal distance is advised to best protect yourself and others from the flu.
The flu can actively live on surfaces. According to the CDC, the virus can “live” on some surfaces for up to 48 hours, so routine cleaning and disinfecting is highly recommended to reduce the spread. “Anything you frequently touch can be a threat,” says Agarwal.
The flu shot will not give you the flu. Flu vaccines administered with a needle into an individual’s muscle is either an inactivated virus that is no longer infectious or a single gene from the virus in order to produce an immune response. “You can develop flu-like symptoms as a result from the flu shot, but you cannot get the flu,” says Dr. Gupta. “This is to not be confused with the nasal spray flu vaccine which contains a live, weakened virus. Even then, though, the CDC states it does not cause the flu.”
The flu shot doesn’t always protect you, but it helps boost immunity. Recent studies conducted by the CDC show that the flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40% and 60%. “It’s your best bet for avoiding getting the flu,” advises Dr. Agarwal. “If you do happen to get the flu, though, the disease is much milder in severity.”
The flu shot doesn’t ‘kick in’ immediately. “It takes about two weeks for the antibodies to develop in the body and provide protection against the flu,” says Dr. Gupta. “Because of this, it is recommended to get the flu shot in early October before flu season starts to peak.”
You can get the flu shot if you are sick. Unless you have a fever of over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, you can still get the flu shot. “If you just have mild cold symptoms, you’re in the clear!” says Agarwal.
Not everyone with a fever has the flu. Despite a fever being one of the most common symptoms, people can also experience chills, body aches, runny nose, cough “fits,” and extreme fatigue, explains Dr. Agarwal. “Symptoms are much more severe than a common cold, but a fever isn’t the only tell-tale sign of having the flu,” she says.
The flu is more likely to affect people of certain ages more than others. “Patients who are younger, older, and those with chronic diseases such as asthma, diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are at a higher risk of developing flu-related complications,” says Dr. Gupta.
You still need to get the vaccine if you’ve already gotten sick with the flu earlier in the year. If you were sick with the flu in January, that doesn’t necessarily mean your body is now resistant to the flu in October of the same year. “Each year, we are usually fighting a different strain of the flu,” clarifies Dr. Gupta.
Medicine can help with the flu once you have it. Although medication will not completely rid the body of symptoms, it can help shorten the overall course and severity. “The best time for treatment is within 72 hours of onset of symptoms,” says Dr. Agarwal. “Antiviral treatment after 72 hours may not be effective.”
The flu is a serious virus. It is estimated that the flu has resulted in between 140,000 and 710,000 hospitalizations per year since 2010. “Even more frightening is that the flu, to some people, can be fatal,” warns Dr. Gupta. Every year, the virus kills between 12,000 and 49,000 people. Last flu season (2017-2018), 172 children died from the flu, which is now the highest number of flu-related deaths reported during a single flu season. “Of those children, 80% of them weren’t vaccinated. Your best defense against this virus it to get vaccinated each season,” adds Dr. Gupta.
If visiting your local primary care physician is not an option, local retail clinics and urgent care facilities typically provide health screenings for the flu. In some cases, you can even avoid sitting in the waiting room for too long by scheduling your arrival time in advance. Additionally, virtual visits, or telemedicine, are an affordable and convenient way to receive care from a physician without leaving your home.
Dr. Agarwal practices at 3 Hospital Plaza (Suite 315) in Old Bridge. Call 732-360-1500 to schedule an appointment. Dr. Gupta practices at 385 Prospect Avenue (Suite 204) in Hackensack. Call 551-996-9150 to schedule an appointment. To find a provider near you, visit HackensackMeridianHealth.org.
The material provided through Health Hub is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.