Flu season is here. Buckle your seatbelt.

November 5th, 2018
A UCHealth doctor talks to a couple about medical needs.
UCHealth physicians say the one thing you can do to guard against the flu during flu season is to get a flu shot.

Flu season is upon us, and there’s one thing you can do to protect yourself: get a flu shot.

So say Dr. Melissa Johnson and Dr. Erik Kramer, family medicine physicians at the UCHealth Family Medicine Clinic — Westminster.

What sort of flu season is predicted?

“Every year, it’s unpredictable until they get a significant number of cases,” Johnson said. “There have already seen some flu cases in Colorado, but they have been sporadic. We expect flu to start affecting the community in November and December and the greatest number of flu patients are often seen in January and February.’’

The flu vaccine

“Last year, they were looking at Australia to try to predict,” Kramer added. “The flu vaccine was about 30 percent effective, but that doesn’t mean we have the same outbreak or strains here. We get different patterns.”

What happens when the news reports such statistics about flu season, he said, is that people think “Well, why get it? It’s not effective.”

In fact, the opposite is true.

“If it’s only 30 percent effective, then more people should get vaccinated to cut down on the overall risk. Even if you get the flu, it still can reduce severity,” Johnson explained.

What does this year’s vaccine cover?

The vaccine being used this year is a quadrivalent one – that is, it covers four strains of influenza. Normally, the vaccine covers three.

A photo of Dr. Melissa Johnson
Dr. Melissa Johnson

“Every year, they base the strains they use in the flu vaccine on the strains they saw the year before,” Johnson said. As a result, an influenza B strain has been included now because it’s expected there may be more of it this year.

Now is the time to get the shot.

“Usually, the vaccine comes out in late August or early September,  and you definitely want to get it by the end of October,  because it takes about two weeks to become effective – the earlier the better,” Johnson said.

Almost everyone should get it, physicians recommend. But some populations are more vulnerable than others during flu season.

Children 5 and younger, the elderly, pregnant women, and those who have chronic diseases or who are immunosuppressed are particularly vulnerable to getting the flu and susceptible to complications from the virus, such as hospitalization and even death. People who work with the public, especially in the health care field, should definitely get it, they said.

They also advise it for child care workers and teachers.

Can you die from the flu?

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has reported 183 pediatric deaths from flu last year.

Of those, “80 percent were kids who did not get flu shots,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to say that these deaths could have been prevented, but it is the best way to protect our children.”

And the CDC number may be low.

“If someone gets the flu but has an underlying illness, the data may not indicate that flu was the cause of death,” Kramer said.

Even if the vaccine doesn’t prevent a patient from getting the flu, it can reduce the severity of the illness and reduce the chance of complications. It’s been compared to wearing a seatbelt. It won’t prevent the car accident, but it may help protect you.

“I think that’s a fair analogy,” Johnson said. “And I’d take it a little further. If you wear your seatbelt, you can protect yourself but not anyone else in the accident. Getting your flu shot may protect a child from getting the flu and dying.”

Who is at most risk during flu season?

Doctors agree that there are few valid reasons for not getting the shot. And some workplaces even require it now.

Most health care providers, such as hospitals and clinics, require staff to get a flu shot, Kramer said.

“Anyone who is exposed to high-risk populations should get one,” he added. That includes home health care workers and nursing professionals who work in long-term care or rehabilitation facilities.

Like it or not, the flu season is coming. Buckle your seatbelt.

About the author

Linda DuVal is a freelance writer based in Colorado Springs who writes articles for UCHealth.