Unlike the common cold, flu symptoms are typically more severe and more likely to affect other parts of the body with a rapid onset. While most people who contract the flu will be able to recover at home in about two weeks, about one in four sufferers will develop complications, including pneumonia.
Certain populations are at a higher risk than the general population for developing complications from the flu, which can lead to hospitalization and death. Age plays a significant role in determining the risk of developing complications, with the elderly (those over the age of 65) and infants and young children (especially those younger than two) among the most likely populations to develop complications. Among the other risk factors of complications:
● Chronic illness, such as heart disease
● Weakened immune system, from medications (such as chemotherapy) or HIV
● Pregnant women
● Working in healthcare
● Working in childcare
● Living or working in a nursing home
First Line of Defense
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advise anyone who can get a flu vaccine, especially those who fall into high-risk categories, to do so. While the success rate of the vaccine may vary from year to year, there are still many reasons to get an annual flu vaccine. The CDC notes:
● The flu vaccine can keep you from getting sick with flu, which in turn helps prevent flu in those more vulnerable to complications from the flu.
● Flu vaccination can help people who are in a high-risk category, like older adults, people with chronic health conditions and young children.
● Vaccinating other members of the household is especially important if there are young infants (younger than six months of age) who are too young to be vaccinated.
● Flu vaccines may make your illness milder if you do get sick.
● Flu vaccines can reduce your risk of more serious outcomes, like secondary complications, hospitalizations or death.
● The flu vaccine reduced children’s risk of flu-related pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) admissions by 74 percent between 2010 - 2012.
● Another study showed that flu vaccination was associated with a 71 percent reduction in flu-related hospitalizations among adults of all ages and a 77 percent reduction among adults aged 50 and older during the 2011-2012 flu season.
● Flu vaccination is an important preventive tool for people who have chronic health conditions and has been associated with lower rates of some cardiac events among people with underlying heart disease, especially in those who have experienced a cardiac event in the year prior to receiving a flu vaccine.
● Flu vaccination has been associated with reduced hospitalizations among people with diabetes (79 percent) and chronic lung disease (52 percent).
● Vaccination helps protect women during pregnancy and their babies for up to six months after being born.
There Are No Guarantees
How well the flu vaccine works (its ability to prevent those vaccinated from becoming ill) can range widely from season to season, and it can depend on who is being vaccinated. A number of factors can determine the likelihood that the vaccine will protect a person from the flu, including the characteristics of the person being vaccinated (including age and overall health), the similarity or “match” between the flu viruses the vaccine is designed to guard against, and the flu viruses spreading through the community.
In years when the vaccine is not well matched to circulating viruses, it is possible that there will be no benefit from flu vaccination. But in years when there is a good match, it’s possible to measure substantial benefits from vaccination in terms of preventing flu illness. However, even in years when the vaccine that was developed was a good match, the benefits of the vaccine will vary. But studies have shown that flu vaccination benefits public health, especially when the vaccine is well-matched to the viruses that circulate in the local population.
In the 2014-2015 flu season, the CDC advised that, based on flu samples they had taken between October 1 and November 22, 2014, less than half were good matches for the current flu vaccines. In January 2015, it was reported that the vaccine only reduced the risk of developing the flu by 23 percent -- although in some years, the risk reduction has been as low as 10 percent. Because it takes four to six months to develop and manufacture a commercially available flu vaccine, by the time this data was released, it was too late to manufacture a new vaccine.
Despite this, the CDC advises that people should still get a flu vaccine each year, reminding them that just because a particular strain of flu currently is not present in the local community, it may appear at any time. Further, a flu vaccine still may make your case of flu milder than if you had gone without the shot this year, regardless of the strain.
What to Do If You Catch the Flu
Even if you’ve gotten a flu vaccine, you may still be at risk for developing the flu. If you begin to notice symptoms of the disease, the CDC reminds the public that there are three antiviral drugs on the market that can help you recover more quickly from the flu. Tamiflu, the most popular, is available in pill form, although there are injectable and inhalable drugs as well.
If you are unlucky enough to catch the flu this season, be sure to get plenty of rest, stay hydrated with clear fluids, add supplements to your diet (vitamins A and E, zinc and garlic are particularly helpful in preventing and minimizing the symptoms of flu) and monitor your symptoms. If you develop a persistent, high fever, chest pain, disorientation, or uncontrollable nausea and vomiting, get emergency medical treatment.