Understanding the Flu

Fall is in the air – and with it comes a wisp of cooler weather, football season, and dessert-flavored lattes at your favorite coffee chain.  Chances are you haven’t thought much about the looming flu season, but in reality, it’s right around the corner.  In fact, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) advises most of us to get our flu vaccines by the end of October because the season can start as early as this month.

With the season looming, we checked in with Rebekah Mulligan, M.D., an internal and geriatric medicine specialist and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Southlake and Texas Health Adult Care, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice, to help us separate fact from fiction when it comes to the flu and how to prevent it.

Myth #1

Flu and the common cold are virtually the same.  There’s really not much difference, right?

Mulligan says, “It may be difficult to differentiate between the two, but there are signs and symptoms that suggest when you have one illness versus the other.  The flu typically comes on fast with fever, chills, muscle aches, tiredness, headache and cough. Other the other hand, symptoms of the common cold include sneezing, stuffy nose, nasal congestion and sore throat. Because the flu can cause serious complications, including pneumonia, sepsis and even death, it’s critical to see your health care provider if you are concerned you may have the flu.”

For additional information on how to differentiate between the flu and the common cold, the CDC also provides a great chart to sort out symptoms here.

Myth #2

Flu season doesn’t start until the weather gets much colder.

According to Mulligan, flu season is most active from October to May.  She recommends getting vaccinated this month if you haven’t already.  That will allow your body a chance to build up immunity to the flu virus — a period that can take up to two weeks.

Myth #3

Experts can predict the severity of the upcoming flu season. 

Last season was a particularly awful flu season here in North Texas, but there is no way to know how severe our upcoming flu season will be. The CDC has a website that tracks flu cases and can show which geographic areas are having the highest incidence of flu. We do know that as more people who are vaccinated in a given area, we will see a corresponding decrease in the number and severity of flu cases.

Myth #4

Not everyone needs to be vaccinated against the flu each year. 

“We recommend everyone 6 months of age and older be immunized each year,” Mulligan says. “Children under the age of 6 months and people with severe reactions to the flu vaccine or any of its ingredients are the exception, as are people who have an allergy to eggs or a history of Guillain-Barre syndrome,  or who are not feeling well the day they intend to be vaccinated.  In the latter case, they should talk to their doctor prior to getting the flu shot.”

Myth #5

People without children at home can skip the flu shot. 

Mulligan believes it is very important to protect the youngest of our population — those 6 months and under who cannot get the vaccine — by getting a flu shot.  Getting the vaccine helps prevent the spread of the virus, which can happen in any public place like the grocery store, houses of worship, and school. Consider that if you cough and the woman next to you has an infant at home, you can expose her to the virus, which she can then spread to her child.

Myth #6

Once someone has had a flu shot, they are fully protected from getting the virus.

No, there are simple precautions we all should take in addition to being immunized. Mulligan says, “Most importantly, wash your hands consistently and often, cover your mouth if you cough or sneeze, and avoid those who are sick.  My patients and friends often wonder how I avoid getting sick, and I tell them my secret is washing my hands.”

Myth #7

The flu shot can actually cause the flu — or similar symptoms. 

The injectable flu vaccine is not a live vaccine, and it cannot make you sick, Mulligan says. If you’re exposed to the virus prior to getting the vaccine or within two weeks of getting the shot, you can still get the flu or flu-like symptoms, so it’s important to get your shot early. In some instances, the flu vaccine can cause soreness, aches or a low-grade fever that can make people think they’ve been infected, but those are normal reactions and don’t mean you have the flu.

In need of a primary care physician? Head to TexasHealth.org/provider to find the closest physician near you this cold and flu season, and every season. 

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