Ask The Doctor

What You Need to Know about the Flu

Dear Dr. Garner,

I am a little frustrated. I am 52 years old, and I got the flu shot for the first time this year. Not only did I get the flu but had a cold right after I got my shot, not to mention a sore arm.

What’s the story? I thought if I got the flu shot I would at least avoid the flu.

Confused Flu Sufferer in Canarsie


Dear Confused,

Before answering your question, I would like to acknowledge Alexa Halvatzis, one of our youngest Ask the Doctor readers. She cuts out the “Ask the Doctor” article each week and puts it on the refrigerator. That’s loyalty for you.

There are many misconceptions about the flu and the flu shot.

First, I would like to emphasize that there is no way to get the flu from the flu shot, as it does not contain a live virus. This year many people opted for the nasal vaccine, to avoid the needle. It is possible to get mild symptoms from this type of vaccination, because it consists of a weakened virus.

Flu vaccine effectiveness is disappointing. This year the vaccine has been about 62 percent effective in preventing the flu. Not an impressive number but not a reason to avoid the vaccine.

The good news is that even though it is only 62 percent effective, it works to lessen the severity should you get the flu. This can help you avoid hospitalization.

The bottom line is that we need new ways to manufacture the vaccine, which can make it available more quickly and more effectively.

I still urge everyone to be vaccinated. The great majority of the sickest patients who have been hospitalized have not gotten the vaccine. Had they, they might have avoided the predicament they are in now.

Everyone six months and older should get the vaccine. For those under six months the mother, if breast feeding, becomes the main source of protection for the child. If not breast feeding, there is still protection from the mother through the placenta, so getting the vaccine when pregnant is a must.

I would like share some interesting facts about the flu:

1. Flu is very different from the common cold. The flu comes on suddenly, like a freight train, and causes sore throat, high fever and muscle aches, whereas the cold has runny nose which comes on gradually, along with mild sore throat and cough and mild fever.

2. If you are having symptoms of stomach upset or diarrhea, it is not the flu. The flu has nothing to do with the stomach.

3. You become contagious one day before you get symptoms with the flu. It is because of this you can unknowingly spread the flu virus. You remain contagious for about seven days.

4. Only about one third of Americans get the flu shot.

5. It is important to get the vaccine each year as the flu strains change and the vaccine only lasts about a year.

6. The flu is spread by close contact with others. It is possible that the early Thanksgiving this year helped to jump-start the flu season with families gathered together and spreading the flu.

7. The flu vaccine takes about two weeks to become effective. It is not too late for this season.

8. The flu virus can live on surfaces for an hour or two, so wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your mouth. The average adult touches hand to face 18 times an hour.

9. Plain soap and water is the best way to clean your hands. Alcohol, or hand sanitizer, like Purell, is very effective as well.

10. If you are caring for sick children or adults with the flu, make sure to wear a face mask in the house. You should buy one from the drug store that is labeled N95. This will block out most viruses.

There are signs that the flu epidemic is weakening, so take heart and remember, the best way you have to prevent getting very sick from the flu is the vaccine.

Before I close, I also would like to send my best wishes to loyal Ask the Doctor viewer and Tablet reader, Marion Cappiello.[hr] Dr. Steven Garner is a Fidelis Care provider who is affiliated with New York Methodist Hospital, Park Slope. He also hosts “Ask the Doctor” on NET, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on Ch. 97 Time Warner and Ch. 30 Cablevision.

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