Health Matters 9/6: Flu season is on its way: Protect yourself with a flu shot

By Rohit Bhalla, D.O.

Flu season is about to ramp up, and if it is anything like past years, millions of people will suffer its effects. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates the flu results in between 9.8 million and 36.5 million illnesses annually.

You can help protect yourself from the virus and prevent its spread by getting vaccinated now.

Highly Contagious

Influenza – the flu – is a respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses.

The virus is spread mainly by tiny airborne droplets made when people with the flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of others nearby. Additionally, a person might get the flu by touching a surface or object that has the flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose or eyes.

What’s more is that people may be able to pass the flu on to someone else even before they know they’re sick.

Everyone at Risk

Everyone is at risk for the flu.

However, certain people are considered high risk, including young children, older adults, pregnant women and individuals with chronic health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, cardiovascular disease or other conditions that compromise the immune system.

Different from a cold, the flu usually comes on suddenly. Symptoms can include:

  • Fever (in some cases).
  • Cough.
  • Sore throat.
  • Runny nose.
  • Body aches.
  • Headache.
  • Chills.
  • Fatigue.
  • Vomiting and diarrhea (this is more common in children than adults).

The flu can also cause complications, including ear and sinus infections, as well as pneumonia and more severe health complications or death.

Protect Yourself Now

Ideally, you should be vaccinated against the flu prior to the virus starting to spread in your community. The flu season typically begins in the fall and extends into spring, with activity peaking between December and February.

Keep in mind, however, after you receive the vaccine, it takes about two weeks for your body to fully build the antibodies to protect you from the virus.

Flu viruses are constantly changing, and each year vaccines are updated to protect against the three or four viruses research suggests will be most active in a given season.

The most common form of the vaccine is a standard-dose flu shot, which is typically administered with a needle into the muscle in your arm. Some seasons, the vaccine is available in a nasal spray as an option for children and people who cannot tolerate needles. Older adults may receive a high-dose flu shot.

Some children from six months old through 8-years of age may require two doses of flu vaccine for adequate protection. Parents should talk to their pediatrician about what is recommended.

Contrary to what some people may believe, the flu vaccine is not an active virus, meaning you cannot get the flu from the vaccine. Side effects of the vaccine are typically mild and may include soreness or redness at the site of the shot, low-grade fever and aches.

Moreover, though the vaccine may not protect against all strains of the flu virus, should you get sick, the vaccine helps reduce the severity of the illness and associated symptoms.

Stay Home

While getting vaccinated is the first and most important step to prevent the flu, if you do get sick, you can reduce the risk of spreading the virus to other people by staying home until you recover – at least 24 hours after your fever is gone.

Rest, drinking lots of fluids and taking ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help ease symptoms.

The CDC also recommends these everyday preventative actions to help slow the spread of germs.

  • Avoid contact with people who are sick.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash – or better yet the toilet – after you use it.
  • Wash your hands regularly with soap and water. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.
  • Clean and disinfect areas and objects that may be contaminated with germs like the flu.

If you still get the flu despite your best efforts, antiviral medications can be used to treat your illnesses. These medications can make the illness milder and shorten the time you are sick. They can also prevent complications.

Studies show that flu antiviral drugs work best for treatment when they are started within two days of getting sick, but starting them later can still be helpful, especially if the sick person is high-risk or is very sick from the flu.

To find a doctor with Penn Medicine Princeton Health, call 888-742-7496 or visit

Rohit Bhalla, D.O., is board certified in internal medicine and infectious disease. He is the chief of infectious diseases at Penn Medicine Princeton Medical Center.