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Your Flu Questions, Answered

Cold weather is here and with it comes an age-old nemesis – the flu. With flu season upon us, Norman Regional has the answers to your frequently asked questions about this disease.

Registered nurse and infection prevention specialist Cindy Lott, answers the most commonly asked questions related to influenza.

Q: When exactly does flu season start and when does it end?
A. In the Northern Hemisphere, winter is the time for flu. Flu outbreaks can happen as early as October but most of the time it peaks in January or later.

Q: With that in mind, when should a person get a flu vaccine?
A. As soon as vaccine is available. It takes about two weeks for antibodies to develop that protect against influenza virus infection.

Q: The most hotly debated issue concerning the flu is probably if you can get the flu from the vaccine. Is that possible?
A. No, a flu shot cannot cause flu illness. The influenza viruses contained in a flu shot are inactivated (killed), which means they cannot cause infection. Flu vaccine manufacturers kill the viruses used in the vaccine during the process of making vaccine, and batches of flu vaccine are tested to make sure they are safe. In randomized, blinded studies, where some people get flu shots and others get salt-water shots, the only differences in symptoms was increased soreness in the arm and redness at the injection site among people who got the flu shot. There were no differences in terms of body aches, fever, cough, runny nose or sore throat.

Q: Are there different types of flu vaccines available?
A. Yes there are different types of flu vaccine available. The most common flu vaccine given to adults is the invactivated (killed) vaccine. It is given as an intramuscular (IM) injection. The live, attenuated (weakened) influenza vaccine is given intranasally. It is not recommended for everyone, it’s only for healthy individuals from the age of 2 to 49, who are not pregnant, and do not have certain health conditions. There is also a “high-dose” inactivated influenza vaccine available for people 65 years of age or older. If you aren’t sure which one is for you, ask your physician.

Q: Who should get a flu vaccine?
A. While everyone should get a flu vaccine each flu season, it’s especially important that certain people get vaccinated either because they are at high risk of having serious flu–related complications or because they live with or care for people at high risk for developing flu–related complications.

  • Pregnant women
  • Children younger than 5, but especially children younger than 2 years old
  • People 50 years of age and older
  • People of any age with certain chronic medical conditions
  • People who live in nursing homes and other long–term care facilities
  • People who live with or care for those at high risk for complications from flu, including:
    o Health care workers
    o Household contacts of persons at high risk for complications from the flu
    o Household contacts and out of home caregivers of children less than 6 months of age (these children are too young to be vaccinated)

Q. Who should not be vaccinated against seasonal flu?
A. Some people should not be vaccinated without first consulting a physician. They include:

  • People who have a severe allergy to chicken eggs.
  • People who have had a severe reaction to an influenza vaccination in the past.
  • Children younger than 6 months of age (influenza vaccine is not approved for use in this age group).
  • People who have a moderate or severe illness with a fever should wait to get vaccinated until their symptoms lessen.
  • People with a history of Guillain–Barré Syndrome (a severe paralytic illness, also called GBS) that occurred after receiving influenza vaccine and who are not at risk for severe illness from influenza should generally not receive vaccine. Tell your doctor if you ever had Guillain-Barré Syndrome.

Your doctor will help you decide whether the vaccine is recommended for you. If you have questions about whether you should get a flu vaccine, consult your health care provider.

Q: What are the symptoms of the flu? Is there a way to tell the flu from the common cold?
A. The flu and the common cold are both respiratory illnesses but they are caused by different viruses. Because these two types of illnesses have similar flu-like symptoms, it can be difficult to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone. In general, the flu is worse than the common cold, and symptoms such as fever, body aches, extreme tiredness, and dry cough are more common and intense. Colds are usually milder than the flu. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose. Colds generally do not result in serious health problems, such as pneumonia, bacterial infections, or hospitalizations.

Q: When is a person with the flu most infectious? If you think you have the flu how long should you stay home from work or keep your children home from school?
A. You may be able to pass on the flu to someone else before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick. Most healthy adults may be able to infect others beginning 1 day before symptoms develop and up to 5 to 7 days after becoming sick. Some people, especially young children and people with weakened immune systems, might be able to infect others for an even longer time. CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except to get medical care or for other things you have to do and no one else can do for you. (Your fever should be gone without the use of a fever-reducing medicine, such as Tylenol®.) You should stay home from work, school, travel, shopping, social events, and public gatherings.

Q: How is the flu treated? Is it something a person needs to go to the doctor for or can it be treated with over the counter medication?
A. General recommendations are to rest, drink fluids, and treat symptoms with Tylenol or Ibuprofen. Antiviral drugs are sometimes prescribed by physicians for patients with seasonal flu. They can short illness when used for treatment, you need to start them within 2 days of symptom onset, they require a prescription, they are expensive and can have side effects. Antivirals can also be used for prevention if you’ve been exposed or are unable to take the flu vaccine. Anytime you aren’t sure what to do, call your physician for advice.

Q: What are some good actions people can take to prevent spreading germs this winter?
A. Wash your hands frequently, either with soap and water or an alcohol based product. Practice good respiratory hygiene – cover your cough, cough and sneeze into your elbow area rather than your hands, dispose of used facial tissue promptly, and perform hand hygiene after. I recommend staying home if you are sick. I know that isn’t always possible but it certainly is helpful.

Q: What is the best way to wash your hands?
A. Keeping hands clean is one of the most important ways to prevent the spread of infection and illness. You can use either soap and water or an alcohol based product. It best to use soap and water if your hands are visibly soiled and I recommend using soap and water after going to the bathroom but most of the time either is fine. If you are using a hand sanitizer/alcohol product you need to make sure you use enough of the product to cover the surfaces of your hands, utilize friction, to distribute the product on your palms, the backs of your hands, between your fingers, don’t forget your thumbs, and wrists. And rub until the product is completely dry.

Q: How effective are hand sanitizers?
A. Hand sanitizers are very effective, the most important thing is to use them and use them faithfully.

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Norman Regional Health System

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