By Dr. Brian Fedoronko
Sore throat, cough and runny nose. They can feel like the norm during winter in Michigan, but they can also be warning signs. The flu has similar symptoms to the common cold, but it can be much more serious.
It sounds scary, but with a little knowledge, the flu can be both preventable and quickly treatable. Here’s a helpful Q&A guide with everything you need to know about the flu this season.
What is the flu?
Short for influenza, the flu is a respiratory illness ranging from mild to severe, with the most serious cases resulting in hospitalization or even death. The flu comes from the influenza virus, which can infect both people and animals, allowing it to spread quickly through communities. There are three main types of influenza viruses:
- Influenza A is the most common around the world and can infect humans and animals. It’s often found in wild birds, which carry the disease across continents. This common type has caused most of the flu pandemics in the most recent centuries.
- Influenza B is a strand that only survives in humans and seals. Combined, type A and B cause the annual influenza epidemics that impact up to 20 percent of the population each year.
- Influenza C is the mildest of the three virus types and is passed among humans and swine. It’s not preventable with a vaccine, but type C symptoms are much less severe.
Within each type, there are several different strains of the virus, which is why new vaccinations are developed each year with revised formulas to fight the flu.
What are flu symptoms?
You can expect the following symptoms if you feel the flu coming on: fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Some also experience vomiting and diarrhea. It’s also possible to have the flu with respiratory symptoms—but without a fever. The flu and COVID-19 have many similar symptoms; check out this guide to help tell the difference.
If you feel the flu coming on, it’s time for care. This will allow you to address any immediate concerns and will also help you know if you’re contagious—so you can help stop spread of the virus.
Not sure if you should seek in-person treatment? Consider scheduling a virtual visit. Virtual visits allow you to talk with a board-certified doctor 24/7 via an internet-enabled device, so a medical professional can help you determine whether you require an in-person visit or if you recover from the flu at home. Check with your health insurance plan to verify virtual care coverage. Many Priority Health plans cover virtual visits at little to no cost.
When is flu season?
There’s no specific start date when flu season begins. It varies each year depending on location around the world.
In Michigan, flu season officially kicks off whenever levels of flu infections begin to rise above normal levels. It usually happens between fall and spring months, with peaks in the winter months of January and February.
Since it varies by community, there’s also no clear cut end date to flu season. If a certain strain of the influenza virus reaches pandemic levels, it can even extend the season to longer than a year while a vaccine to fight it is developed and distributed.
Do flu shots work?
It is highly recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and health professionals that everyone who is six months or older get a flu shot to prevent sickness. In fact, a 2017 study showed that flu vaccination reduced deaths, intensive care unit (ICU) admissions and overall duration of stay among hospitalized flu patients; with the greatest benefits for people 65 and older. Since vaccines are updated each season to keep up with changing strains for the flu virus, it’s important to get a flu shot every single year.
What are my options?
Any doctor or health care provider can distribute a flu vaccine. Flu shots are also available at retail pharmacies or blood testing labs. For seniors—keep an eye out for flu shot clinics in residential senior housing, community centers and other nonprofits in your area.
What does it cost?
The flu vaccine is typically covered by your insurance. Check with your health plan about your best option if you haven’t received your flu shot yet this year.
Are there side effects?
While there are possible side effects of the vaccination, the CDC notes that they are typically mild and do not last very long, and that you will not get the flu from the shot.
Who should NOT get vaccinated?
You shouldn’t get a flu shot if you’ve had an allergic reaction in the past or currently have a high fever—though you should get one as soon as your fever ends.
Even though flu vaccines can contain an egg protein called ovalbumin, the CDC still recommends people with allergies to eggs get a shot. People with egg allergy may receive any vaccine (egg-based or non-egg-based) that is otherwise appropriate for their age and health status. Previously, it was recommended that people with severe allergy to egg (those who have had any symptom other than hives with egg exposure) be vaccinated in an inpatient or outpatient medical setting. Beginning with the 2023-2024 season, additional safety measures are no longer recommended for flu vaccination of egg-allergic persons beyond those recommended for receipt of any vaccine, regardless of the severity of previous reaction to egg. All vaccines should be administered in settings in which personnel and equipment needed for rapid recognition and treatment of allergic reactions are available.
How else can you prevent the flu?
Besides a new vaccination each year, there are other preventive steps you can take to reduce your chances of getting the flu this season.
- Lead a healthy lifestyle. This includes proper nutrition and getting regular exercise. Get plenty of sleep, manage your stress and be sure to drink plenty of fluids.
- Hygiene. Washing your hands will often help protect you. If soap and water aren’t around, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Contact matters. Avoid close contact with sick people and if you get sick, stay home from public areas. Germs are often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated and then touches their eyes, nose or mouth, so avoid touching these areas.
- Cover up. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. Flu and other serious respiratory illnesses, are spread by cough, sneezing or unclean hands.
- Keep up with your other vaccines. The flu shot can help prevent the flu, but if you actually get it you can develop other advanced conditions you should be protected against. Here is the CDC’s helpful guide to vaccinations by age.
When is flu an emergency?
If you or a loved one experience any of the following emergency warning signs from the flu, the CDC recommends immediate emergency care.
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
- Sudden dizziness
- Severe or persistent vomiting
- Flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worse cough
Is treatment available?
The answer is, yes. You should seek treatment as soon as possible because antiviral drugs work best when started early (within 48 hours of symptoms). A prescription is needed for an antiviral drug, which fights against flu by preventing the multiplying of viruses in your body—which can make your flu illness milder and help you get better faster. It may also prevent additional serious health problems that can result from the flu. Your doctor or health care provider can recommend the best antiviral option for you.
So remember, education and prevention are keys to success this flu season. Be sure to get your flu vaccination as it is the best way to protect yourself and others. If you do get the flu, keep a close eye on your symptoms and seek care right away when needed to help stop the spread—and help you feeling better faster.
Brian Fedoronko, MD is a senior medical director at Priority Health. He holds a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Michigan State University, a Doctor of Medicine from Wayne State University and completed his residency with the University of Michigan. He lives in southeast Michigan.