Doctor’s Tip: Influenza can interrupt work and school, but it can also cause death. It’s flu shot time.

Dr. Greg Feinsinger
Doctor's Tip
Dr. Greg Feinsinger.

It has been said that America doesn’t have a healthcare system; instead we have a disease management system—we wait until diseases occur and then spend trillions of dollars trying to manage them. 

Immunizations are an example of successful, inexpensive disease prevention. They stimulate the immune system to fight off infectious diseases, without the vaccinated person experiencing the disease. They have saved millions of lives worldwide and prevented millions of cases of disability, such as deafness from measles, birth defects from rubella, paralysis from polio, and long COVID. 

Thousands of Americans die every year from influenza and its complications—and most of these deaths would be prevented if everyone obtained an annual flu shot. Of lesser concern — but still important — is that influenza accounts for many days of lost work and school absences. 

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends a flu shot by the end of October for everyone over the age of 6 months, with rare exceptions (egg allergy is no longer one of them). Children under the age of 6 months should not receive flu shots, so it’s particularly important that caregivers for those children are immunized. During the 2019-20 flu season, 166 U.S. children died from influenza—deaths that likely would have been prevented had they been immunized. Adults 65 and older need an extra strength vaccine. 

Influenza is caused by viruses, which do not respond to antibiotics. The most severe forms of flu are influenza A and B, with C being milder.  In temperate climates such as that of Garfield County, flu viruses are usually active during the colder months — late fall, winter and early spring.

It takes about two weeks for the shots to “kick in.” Flu shots can be obtained in most doctors’ offices, pharmacies, and at public health offices. They are tweaked every year, due to “genetic drift” in influenza viruses. Information about the several flu vaccine options available this year is available on the CDC website, or you may discuss with whomever you have requested to administer the vaccine.. 

Side effects from flu shots are rare, other than mild soreness around the injection site for a day or two. People sometimes claim that the flu shot gave them the flu, but that has never been proven to occur. The average adult gets five non-influenza viral infections a year such as colds, so out of the millions of flu shots that are given every year, some people will coincidentally come down with one of these other viral infections and blame it on the flu shot they just received. 

Influenza is highly contagious, and is transmitted via the respiratory route, meaning nasal drainage and droplets expelled by coughing. The incubation period is 1-4 days. Typical symptoms include fever, chills, malaise (feeling really crummy), generalized aching, chest discomfort, headache, nasal stuffiness, dry cough, and sore throat. Elderly patients often present with lassitude and confusion but not the other symptoms. Common flu complications include sinus and ear infections, bronchitis, and pneumonia (viral and bacterial), with pneumonia usually being the cause of flu-related deaths.  

Did you know that flu shots can reduce death from heart attacks and strokes? Bacterial and viral infections such as influenza can cause inflammation that can trigger the rupture of arterial plaque—the cause of heart attacks and strokes. According to Bradley Bale and Amy Doneen in their book “Beat the Heart Attack Gene,” a large study showed that up to 91,000 Americans die annually from heart attacks and strokes triggered by the flu—deaths that are not included in the statistics for flu-related deaths. 

Rapid flu tests done in doctors’ offices are helpful for diagnosis, although false negatives are common. According to the CDC, rapid influenza testing has a sensitivity ranging from approximately 50-70%.

Remember that flu shots only prevent influenza A and B — not colds or stomach flu or intestinal flu. They are not 100% effective in preventing influenza, but the disease tends to be shorter and milder in immunized people, and complications including death are much less apt to occur. 

Be proactive about your health, and get a flu shot if you haven’t already. When you do that, check to see if you’re up to date on other adult immunizations such as the COVID-19 vaccine (a new booster that covers the latest variants will soon be available soon and can be given concurrently with flu shots), Pneumovax (“pneumonia shots”) and shingles.

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