Flu Vaccines: 5 Things You Might Not Know

It’s time to get your flu shot! Flu season in the United States runs from October to May, and flu vaccines are available now. 

This year, COVID-19 vaccines have been on our minds. But we still need to vaccinate against the flu. Millions of people get the flu each year, and thousands or tens of thousands die from flu or flu-related causes. Everyone six months old or older should get a flu shot every year.

Influenza — flu for short — is a potentially serious disease that can be prevented with vaccination. But there are some things you might not know about the flu shot.

Every flu season is different

Just as we’re seeing different variants of COVID-19, there are different variants of the flu. Each year, the vaccines developed are different. 

There are about 60 different varieties of flu, and occasionally a new variety may develop (as it did in 2009). The World Health Organization tracks the flu and determines which strains of influenza are most common each year. This information is used to decide how to make the right vaccine each year.

This is why you and your family need a flu shot every year.

Flu vaccines are always quadrivalent vaccines

“Quadrivalent” means that each flu shot protects against four variants of influenza: two influenza A types and two influenza B types. 

There is also influenza C, but this type of flu is mild and doesn’t cause epidemics. 

Influenza A can be carried by birds as well as humans. This type of flu mutates (changes) more quickly than Influenza B, and has been responsible for the most severe outbreaks, including epidemics and pandemics. Some examples from history:

  • H1N1, which caused Spanish Flu in 1918 and Swine Flu in 2009
  • H2N2, which caused Asian Flu in 1957
  • H3N2, which caused Hong Kong Flu in 1968
  • H5N1, which caused Bird Flu in 2004

Influenza B shows up only in humans. It doesn’t change as quickly as Influenza A, so there are fewer variants. It can still make people very sick and lead to complications like pneumonia.

We say “cold and flu” but there’s a difference

The phrase “cold and flu” is so common that you might think influenza is just a little bit worse than a common cold. Actually, the flu can be very serious.

The CDC estimates that last year 38 million people caught the flu, 18 million went to see a doctor for the flu, 400,000 people were hospitalized, and 22,000 died from flu.

This year, with hospitals already overstretched because of COVID-19, it’s especially important to get the vaccine and avoid the flu. 

Some people are infectious longer than others

Most people are contagious with the flu for three or four days before they have symptoms and as much as a week after they get sick.

People who are obese can be contagious 42% longer than other people, according to research published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases.

The takeaway from this is that it is especially important to get the flu vaccine if you are obese. The same measures you take to avoid catching and spreading the coronavirus can help you avoid catching and spreading the flu:

  • Wash hands frequently.
  • Disinfect surfaces you often touch (flu viruses can live on surfaces for 48 hours).
  • Keep your distance from others — flu spreads through talking as well as coughing and sneezing. 
  • Wear a mask.
  • Stay home if you’re sick.

Some people are more vulnerable to complications than others

People with chronic diseases like diabetes, asthma, or chronic kidney disease are more susceptible to complications of the flu. Small children and older people are also more vulnerable to complications. 

Obese people with a body mass index of 40 or higher are more likely to develop complications from flu, too. 37.4% of Arkansans are obese, so this information applies to many of us here in Northwest Arkansas. 

Other factors that can increase the chances of complications:

  • heart or lung disease
  • a weakened immune system
  • having had a stroke
  • blood disorders like sickle cell anemia
  • pregnancy

While it is especially important for people with these factors to get their flu shots, everyone 6 months old and older should get a flu shot. Make your appointment today!