Flu Q&A

Flu season is tearing through the country so it’s time for a little question and answer session.

Q: What is the flu?

A: Influenza is a nasty virus that can infect many species, especially humans, birds, and pigs. For unclear reasons, flu sweeps across the planet every year, subtypes slowly mutating through the natural proofreading errors as viruses copy their genetic material during “reproduction”. Every so often, different flu viruses will infect the same animal and recombine in a unique way, creating a virus to which no one has immunity. These new strains generally cause widespread pandemics of influenza, like the H1N1 (“Swine”) flu that spread rapidly in 2009.

Q: What’s it feel like to have the flu?

A: Bad. Very bad. Severe muscle and body aches (“Doc, even my hair hurts”), fevers, sore throat, cough. If you’re lucky the flu will only knock you down for several days. If you’re really unlucky, bacteria will grow in the soup left over by your flu-damaged lung cells and you will get pneumonia. The flu and the pneumonia that can follow it kills between 3,000-50,000 Americans yearly.

Q: How good is the flu vaccine?

A: This year’s flu vaccine matches the flu viruses we are finding out there. What isn’t easily answerable is how much less likely you are to get the flu after you’ve had the shot, but data point to a significant decrease risk for getting the flu and a decrease in risk for severe disease.

Q: I got the flu vaccine but got the flu. What’s the point?

A: Some people may develop mild aching after a shot as the immune system meets the virus for the first time. The flu vaccine is not 100% protective. But the word “flu” is tossed around for diseases that are not influenza. Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are not typical of influenza but of norovirus and similar infections. Flu shots don’t protect against these. Colds, coughs, pneumonia, bronchitis can all be caused by a variety of viruses and bacteria that are not influenza. The shot will not protect you from these.

Q: Isn’t it stupid to put live viruses in your body?

A: Of course. Unless it’s a vaccine. But injectable flu vaccines are not live viruses. The nasal vaccine is, and people with certain health conditions such as asthma shouldn’t use it. Flu injections are biologically incapable of causing flu infection.

Q: There’s mercury in that stuff, isn’t there? Mercury is dangerous.

A: Some mercury compounds in some amounts in some situations are very, very dangerous. Multi-dose flu bottles contain very small amounts of a mercury compound as a preservative. There compound itself is not dangerous, and it is present in very small amounts, only enough per batch to keep the vaccine from growing nasties.

Q: I don’t get flu shots because I never get the flu. That’s smart, right?

A: This is a common mistake people make. Whether or not you’ve had flu in the past doesn’t affect your risk for getting flu in the future. It’s like a slot machine. Each pull is random. Just because you hit once doesn’t mean it’s more likely you’ll hit again.

Q: How else can I prevent the flu, besides the vaccine?

A: Stay away from crowds. Wash your hands frequently. Don’t touch your face. In rare situations, medication can be given to prevent the flu in high-risk situations. There are no supplements or magic potions than can help prevent the flu.

Q: How can I treat the flu?

A: If you have a confirmed case of the flu, there are medications that can be used if you are diagnosed quickly, but they aren’t that effective. There are no supplements that help. Medications that help treat fever and aching such as tylenol and ibuprofen can make you feel more comfortable. Drinking lots of fluids will help replace the fluid lost in the fever.

Your best shot is to get vaccinated. 

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  1. camilletixier

     /  January 13, 2013

    Are the vaccines tailored to more than one strain of flu?
    If I got a vaccine in November, is that the one you said addressed most of the current flu? I know you aren’t interested in giving medical advice, but I just want to know if the vaccine I got is relevant.

    • The three strains included in this year’s flu vax are a good match for the circulating strains

  2. Reblogged this on Living the 1950s and commented:
    A good read!

  3. “Best Shot”. I see what you did there.

  4. studyzone

     /  January 13, 2013

    ” I got the flu vaccine but got the flu. What’s the point?” – I’m sending this post to a few relatives just for your answer to this question. Two of them have had norovirus-like symptoms recently, and keep blaming it on the flu. No matter how often I try to explain it, they still think it’s the flu shot’s fault. I teach at a mostly-undergrad university, and with our dorm-living students getting sick with documented influenza (one dorm floor has been quarantined already), I always make sure I have a flu shot.

  5. Jane Trimble

     /  January 13, 2013

    The excuses that my supposedly educated co-workers come up with when the nurses show up to give us our free (yay!) flu shots are incredible. I’ve chosen to believe that they’re really deeply frightened of needles and embarrassed about it, because it’s less depressing than thinking they believe what they are saying…

  6. Karen

     /  January 13, 2013

    Yay flu-shot! I haven’t had the flu in at least a couple of decades. I have had colds with nasty asthma side-effects, once requiring an ambulance visit to the hospital for a breathing treatment more helpful than my rescue inhaler. (Damned expensive cold.) I get my flu shot each year by early October unless there’s a shortage of the vaccine, then I get it a little later on doctor’s orders because I’m asthmatic.

    My husband was a member of the “I don’t need a flu shot” brigade until he actually got the damn thing. I still remember him shivering in bed with a 103 degree fever, refusing to believe that Tylenol would give him relief, until it did. Since then he, too, gets his flu shot every year.

    Myself, I wash my hands almost compulsively, and try to stay away from sick people. It’s the best you can do, besides the flu shot, in the winter. I have no patience for people who refuse the flu shot.

  7. Nicole

     /  January 13, 2013

    Is there a typo here? “Doesn’t” affect your risk for the future?

    “Q: I don’t get flu shots because I never get the flu. That’s smart, right?

    A: This is a common mistake people make. Whether or not you’ve had flu in the past does affect your risk for getting flu in the future. It’s like a slot machine. Each pull is random. Just because you hit once doesn’t mean it’s more likely you’ll hit again.”

    Thanks I will bookmark this one for sure!

  8. Anonymous

     /  January 14, 2013

    I have one of the conditions which makes me predisposed to worse complications from the flu. I got a flu vaccine, and the CDC says that other members of my household should get vaccinated to help protect me. One of the members of my household refuses to get vaccinated. How worried should I be? How much more of a risk am I at?

    • i don’t know if the question is answerable. sounds kind of selfish though

    • JustaTech

       /  January 14, 2013

      IANAD, but I would think that as long as the un-vaccinated member of your household is healthy, you’re fine. It’s just that if this person does get the flu, you chance of getting the flu from them is much higher (vaccinated or not) because you have so much more contact with them. Every door handle, the remote, the microwave, the refrigerator door… Since there’s no way to know if your vaccination “took”, if a member of your household gets the flu either they or you need to be quarantined, possibly by you living in a hotel until they are better. (That might also be a good argument to present them with as to why they should get vaccinated.)

  9. khan

     /  January 14, 2013

    I got free flu shots at work (USAF): now get them free from blood donation place.
    Had Hong Kong flu in Nov ’68; no fun at all.

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