A few weeks ago I got the flu. The real flu. Influenza, not just a bad cold. My symptoms were classic – body aches, fever, cough, and a sore throat. I’m pretty certain I know precisely when the flu virus entered my body. I was caring for a sick patient, somewhat up in the child’s face to swab their nasal passages for a flu test, when the kid coughed directly into my mouth. Gag! In desperation I actually Purelled my face as I left the room. Of course, hindsight is 20/20 and I should have been wearing a mask, but it was too late.
It didn’t take more than a day or so before I started feeling ill. Being a relatively healthy person I figured I’d get through the ordeal with only supportive measures: namely, hydration and rest. Heck, I thought this would be a good excuse to entrust the kids to my husband, lounge out on the couch, and get caught up on Netflix. I figured I’d be miserable, but I’d get better. Unfortunately, my prediction was way off base.
Four days into the illness my fever spiked. I went from having a 100/101 temp to 103/104. I developed chills, a worsening cough, and a premonition that something just wasn’t right. On day five my husband dragged me into an urgent care clinic where the Nurse Practitioner took one look at my miserable self and sent me to the hospital. In the emergency department the full picture came together. Sure, I had the flu, but I had developed a worrisome complication: pneumonia. There was also concern that I was brewing a bloodstream infection. My condition was serious and this won me an admission to the hospital.
Certainly, my story is weird. Most people recover from the flu by the power of their own immune system, especially people in their 30’s. I’m not writing today for the sake of fear mongering; however, it’s important to be aware that not everyone has a straightforward recovery. Severe cases of influenza, especially certain strains, can result in complications that require a hospitalization or that could even lead to death. It’s important to take the flu seriously, to get your flu immunization every season, and to otherwise do your darndest to keep your hands clean and avoid individuals who are sick.
So who’s at highest risk?
Flu is typically most dangerous for the smallest of children, individuals with an underlying chronic disease, those who are pregnant, and the elderly. According to the CDC, 2016’s flu related hospitalizations are predominantly in the elderly population followed by children ages 0-4. Thankfully, there is a yearly immunization that can help. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good. This year the flu vaccine seems to be around 60% effective. People often grumble that, “the flu shot doesn’t work,” “I don’t care if I get the flu, it’s not that bad.” Or, my favorite, “I will never get another flu shot because the shot GAVE me the flu.” Really? Let’s talk about this.
“The flu shot doesn’t work”
The science behind developing an annual flu shot is complex and not perfect. There are numerous flu viruses circulating and the vaccine can only account for 3 or 4 of the strains. The World Health Organization is responsible for forecasting which strain of flu virus will be most prevalent. Sometimes they get it right, and some years their prediction is off. That being said, the vaccine is never, completely, a throw away. Even in years where an important strain of flu is not accounted for in the vaccine, it is still helpful to be vaccinated. You see, when vaccinated individuals get sick their illness tends to be milder. In fact, children who are vaccinated have 77% less risk of being admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit if they get the flu. That means they are way more likely to get better on their own than kids who did not receive the vaccine.
“I don’t care if I get the flu, it’s not that bad.”
Actually, it is that bad. If it wasn’t that bad you probably didn’t have the flu. Influenza causes terrible body aches, high fever, cough, sore throat, congestion, headache, fatigue, and occasionally nausea and vomiting. Even if you were to luck out and become ill with only a mild case, your cough can spew large flu droplets up to 6 feet into the air and smaller particles even further. That means there is a strong chance you can spread your germs to others who may not have such a robust immune system. Even more disturbing, submicron particles of flu can be suspended around an ill person by merely talking and breathing.
Eww, look how far those flu droplets go!
“I will never get another flu shot because the shot GAVE me the flu.”
Nope. It didn’t. It’s actually impossible for this to happen. The injectable vaccine uses a dead virus to provide immunity. Dead viruses can’t cause illness. The nasal spray vaccine, Flumist, uses an attenuated, meaning weakened, virus to provide immunity. Weakened viruses cannot cause illness. The flu mist CAN cause a bit of congestion or runny nose in the days after its administration; however, this is not the full blown flu.
Some last thoughts…
In case you’re wondering, I was immunized this year. I actually gave myself my own Flumist and I personally vaccinated my own kids. In fact, I brought the vaccine home from my clinic and gave my daughter her shot from the comfort of her own changing table (she’s probably still mad at me).
Am I annoyed that I was vaccinated and STILL got the flu? A bit. However, there is a good chance I would have been even sicker had I not been immunized. Therefore, I still strongly recommend flu vaccine for anyone that is a candidate: babies older than 6 months, toddlers, school-aged children, teenagers, adults, the elderly, everyone. Flu activity can continue through the month of May; therefore, there is still time to get your vaccine. Though, the sooner the better as it can take up to two weeks for your body to seroconvert and develop full immunity.
More questions? Check out the latest flu information direct from the CDC.
That time I got the flu by Sarah Kiser is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.