The influenza outbreak in Wisconsin during the 2017-2018 season was particularly severe and widespread, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health and Human Services. More than 7,500 people were hospitalized. There were 379 deaths in Wisconsin due to the flu, which the DHS said is twice as many as the previous year.1 According to the DHS, only 36 percent of Wisconsinites got vaccinated against the flu last year.2 Nationally, there was a record-breaking number of flu-related hospitalizations and deaths.3 

Health officials largely attribute the severity of the last flu season to the dominance of a particularly bad strain of the virus, H3N2. In general, the H3N2 strain is accompanied by more severe flu symptoms and a higher mortality rate. Also, flu vaccines tend to be more effective against H1N1 viruses than H3N2 viruses because of genetic changes that can occur in the H3N2 viruses.4 

“No matter what strains of the virus are circulating, flu vaccination remains the best way to prevent the flu and its complications,” said Christopher Sobczak, MD, internal medicine and pediatrics physician with the Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin health network. “Everyone 6 months and older can and should get the flu vaccine.”

What’s new with the flu vaccine this year

There are two types of flu vaccine. The nasal spray, or FluMist®, and the shot, which is injected into the arm muscle. Both stimulate the body to make protective antibodies.

For the last two years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) only recommended the injectable form of the flu vaccine. The agency advised against the nasal spray because it was not as effective at protecting against certain strains of the virus. This year, the nasal spray is expected to work better. The CDC recommends the injectable flu vaccine for individuals 6 months and older or the nasal spray for individuals between the ages of 2 and 49.

Why you should get a flu vaccine this year

The flu virus evolves quickly, and last year’s vaccine may not protect against this year’s virus. “Flu viruses are constantly changing,” Dr. Sobczak said. “The vaccine composition is reviewed each year and updated as needed based on which flu viruses are making people sick, the extent to which those viruses are spreading and how well the previous season’s vaccine protects against those viruses.”

The flu vaccine is designed to protect against the three or four strains of flu that research indicates will be most prevalent during flu season. Every year, CDC researchers study how well flu vaccines work. Recent studies indicate that flu vaccinations reduce the risk of getting sick by anywhere between 40 and 60 percent, when most of the flu viruses circulating in the community are well-matched to the year’s flu vaccine.5 

It takes about two weeks after getting the flu vaccine for the body to develop antibodies and build immunity against the virus. However, getting vaccinated against the flu cannot give you the flu.

“Some people may describe feeling achy or may have a low-grade temperature after getting the vaccine,” Dr. Sobczak said. “This is not the flu. This is the body’s immune response to the vaccine, and it typically resolves in one to two days.”

How flu virus spreads

The flu virus most often spreads through coughs and sneezes by an infected person when respiratory fluid becomes airborne. You can also get the flu by touching a surface or object, such as a table or a doorknob, that has the flu virus on it and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes.

You can pass the flu on to someone else before you’re showing symptoms or once you know you are sick. Flu symptoms begin one to four days after the virus is in the body. According to the CDC, a healthy adult who becomes sick may infect others one day before symptoms develop and up to five to seven days after becoming sick. Children and some people with weakened immune systems may be contagious for more than seven days.

“It is best for those who have the flu to stay home from work or school,” Dr. Sobczak said. “Try to rest and recover. This will help prevent the virus from spreading to others.”

Treating the flu

The flu, like the common cold, is a virus.

“It starts suddenly and usually develops with a bad sore throat, body aches, high fever (above 101 degrees Fahrenheit) and at times a runny nose,” Dr. Sobczak said.

If you think you may have the flu, talk to your doctor. The flu can last for 10 to 14 days, and antibiotics cannot make it go away.

“There are antiviral medications that can shorten the duration of the flu, if the medications are given early,” Dr. Sobczak said. “Antiviral medications are important in controlling the flu, but they are not a substitute for the vaccination.”

Where to go for flu care

Your first thought may be to go to the emergency department (ED), but there are other convenient options.

“EDs are best utilized for severe or potentially life-threatening illnesses and injuries,” said Mark Lodes, MD, internal medicine and pediatrics physician with the Froedtert & MCW health network. “In many circumstances, influenza and other respiratory illnesses present with mild or moderate symptoms. In those cases, the ED is probably not the best option. Occasionally, though, we do see severe cases of the flu. If potentially life-threatening signs or symptoms appear, call 911 and get to the ED. This is particularly of concern for people with chronic illnesses, especially pulmonary or cardiac conditions.”

For most mild to moderate cases of flu, faster, more convenient care is available.

“Within the Froedtert & MCW health network, we offer several convenient care options, including FastCare, Walk-In Clinics, Urgent Care and primary care physicians,” Dr. Lodes said. “Patients can even be seen by webcam in the comfort of their home through our Virtual Clinic, where board-certified family medicine providers are always available.”

Get fast, accurate treatment for the flu in the Froedtert & MCW health network

  • Virtual Clinic — Log on to froedtert.com/virtual-clinic to speak with a board-certified family medicine provider 24/7 via webcam for $49.
  • FastCare, Walk-In Clinics, Urgent Care — Locations and wait times listed at froedtert.com/walk-in. Flu shots available.
  • Primary Care Physicians — Contact your primary care physician for an appointment, or log on to froedtert.com/primary-care to choose a doctor. Flu shots available.

The Froedtert & MCW health network is hosting flu clinics at its various health centers through Nov. 3. Most clinics run from 8 a.m. to noon. Appointments are required. You can also get your flu shot at a Froedtert & MCW pharmacy:

  • 87th Street Pharmacy
  • Clinical Cancer Center Pharmacy
  • Center for Advanced Care Pharmacy
  • Tosa Health Center Pharmacy
  • Drexel Town Square Health Center Pharmacy
  • Community Memorial Hospital Outpatient Pharmacy
  • Town Hall Health Center Pharmacy

1https://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/news/releases/092418.htm  

2https://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/news/releases/092418.htm

3http://nfid.org/newsroom/news-conferences/2018-nfid-influenza-pneumococcal-news-conference/press-release.pdf

4https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/vaccineeffect.htm#why_flu_vax_less_effective_against_H3N2

5https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/vaccineeffect.htm

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