Asked and Answered: What Patients Want to Know About the Flu

This flu season has been one of the worst in recent years, with approximately 8.7 million flu illnesses, 78,000 hospitalizations, and 4,500 flu-related deaths reported across the United States. Flu vaccines remain the best defense against this year’s flu, along antiviral medications like Tamiflu, handwashing and plenty of rest. Your patients likely have plenty of questions about treating flu symptoms or avoiding flu altogether. Below, we address some commonly asked questions with input from clinical experts.

Why is this year’s flu season so bad? In a recent CNN interview, William Schaffner, MD, a professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, explained that flu arrived about a month earlier than usual, indicating a “substantial flu season.” Social distancing, isolating and masking during the COVID-19 surge resulted in people having little exposure to influenza in recent years. This year, immunity to influenza viruses is low, resulting in more cases and hospitalizations—that’s why it’s important for everyone to consider getting vaccinated against the flu.

Why are flu shots so important? Last year, Katie Duffy Senior Director of Pharmacy at Erlanger Health System explained in an interview with News Channel 9 that flu shots reduce your chance of getting the flu, “but if you were to still get one of the strains the vaccine doesn’t cover, the protection you get from the vaccination keeping you from getting as sick and having severe symptoms.” According to the CDC, flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40% and 60%. Duffy also reminds viewers that it’s safe to get both a COVID-19 vaccine and a flu shot on the same day.

Who should get the flu shot? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone 6 months and older get the annual flu vaccine although there are rare exceptions. Anyone with severe allergies to the flu vaccine or an ingredient in the vaccine should not get vaccinated. More information can be found here.

Why can older adults get a higher-dose flu shot? As concern about a difficult flu season increased, the CDC released updated recommendations, suggesting that people 65 and older should “preferentially receive” a high-dose or adjuvanted vaccine. In this interview, Schaffner explains that there are three vaccines that have been shown to work better in people 65 and older—the high-dose vaccine, a vaccine that has an adjuvant or immune stimulant, and a recombinant vaccine.

Can you still get sick after a vaccine? The short answer is yes—but that doesn’t mean your vaccine isn’t working. According to Schaffner, vaccines for respiratory illnesses such as influenza and COVID-19 create antibodies that prevent you from getting seriously sick. While you might still experience mild symptoms such as runny nose, sore throat and cough, the antibodies created by the vaccine typically neutralize the virus before it enters your blood stream and causes serious illness.

Can you get two flu shots in the same season? Verywell Health reporter Mary Isler interviewed Buddy Creech, MD, director, Vanderbilt Vaccine Research Program, to learn more about flu protection. While kids can benefit from a second shot, there is not enough evidence indicating that two shots will protect adults. According to Creech, vaccine effectiveness does wane throughout the season, but the CDC still recommends that one flu shot is enough to get the general population through flu season. If you have questions about the flu vaccine, contact your provider for help.  

What should you do if you have the flu? For starters—stay home and keep your distance from other people so you don’t spread the flu. People with the flu are generally contagious for a day before they have symptoms and about 5 to 7 days after symptoms begin. Drink plenty of water, rest as much as possible and use over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen and a decongestant to manage your symptoms.

What does the Tamiflu shortage mean for you? Tamiflu is a leading flu treatment that doctors use to reduce severity of illness in higher-risk patients, like young children and older adults. Last month, about a dozen companies that sell generic Tamiflu reported supply issues. While speaking to Bloomberg News, James Antoon, MD, MPH, assistant professor of Pediatrics and pediatric hospitalist at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, noted that  about a Tamiflu shortage is particularly problematic this year due to a more difficult flu season and reduced vaccination rates. Drug manufacturers are ramping up production to get more product in stock, but it will take some time. In the meantime, flu vaccination and frequent handwashing are the best defenses against illness.

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