Influenza Q&A

by Jeffrey Kahn, M.D., Ph.D.

Health Talks

Editor's Note: This entry was updated October 2014.

When is flu season? Flu season varies from year to year – it can start as early as August and last into late spring.

What is the best way to prevent contracting the flu? For those who are eligible to receive it, vaccination is the number one prevention method. For those are not eligible to receive the vaccine – infants under 6 months old or those with certain allergies and medical conditions – it’s important for the other people in their household to get vaccinated.

What are the most common flu symptoms? The most common symptoms are sudden onset of fever, headaches, nausea, body aches, coughing and sneezing. Always see a physician immediately if you’re having chest pains or trouble breathing – both of these symptoms may be an indication of pneumonia.

What are the top six ways to help prevent getting the flu?

    • The top prevention method is flu vaccination
    • Practice good hand hygiene – wash your hands often and be mindful of what you touch, including your keyboard, cell phone, handshakes and doorknobs
    • Cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze. Use your sleeve if you don’t have a tissue handy.
    • Protect your household – all those who are eligible to get the flu vaccine should. Doing this also helps protect anyone in your household (newborns and those with other medical conditions) who may not be eligible to get one.
    • If your child contracts the flu, try to keep him or her home from school.
    • If you contract the flu, don’t try to be a champion – stay home until you’re healthy.

Is it more effective to wash your hands or use hand sanitizers to help prevent the flu? Both methods are great ways to reduce your chances of catching the flu this season. However, the alcohol-based gels may be easier on sensitive skin.

How is the vaccine created? Over the last 30 years there have typically been three different strains of influenza that circulate during each flu season. To create the vaccine, scientists take samples from flu strains in Asia and the Southern Hemisphere where the virus originates each season. Some years the strains represented in the vaccine do not exactly match the strains circulating. Therefore, some of the available vaccines for this year’s flu season will contain components from four strains to increase the likelihood that the vaccine will protect against the circulating strains.

Most of the vaccines are produced on eggs and this has been an issue for individuals with egg allergies. For the first time, there are now egg-free vaccines available that can be used in those individuals who have allergic reactions to eggs and egg products.

There is also a live vaccine that contains weakened flu viruses that cannot replicate at the normal human body temperate.

What is H1N1? The influenza strain H1N1 is commonly known as swine flu. It is a combination of influenza viruses from humans, swine and birds. H1N1 was first detected in humans in 2009, and this strain has now been incorporated into the standard flu vaccine.

What is H3N2v? This is a new strain of the flu virus that has only been identified in individuals who have had direct contact with pigs. It doesn’t appear to cause severe illness or be highly transmissible between humans, but we can never be too cautious. This is another example of the ability flu viruses have to “jump” from animals (usually swine or birds) to humans. It’s very important to limit contact with pigs, especially if you have any underlying medical conditions.

Is there any specific treatment for influenza? Yes, there are two anti-viral drugs commonly prescribed to treat the flu. The key is to see your doctor early during the illness because the anti-viral therapy is most effective if used within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms.

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