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.