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Commentary: The truth about influenza and vaccines

By Marcia Schroeder RN, Horizon Public Health

Influenza is NOT ... a cold, or the run-of-the-mill vomiting or diarrheal illness that people often refer to as the "stomach flu."

Influenza IS ... an upper respiratory infection. It is a virus. It is contagious, spread by coughing, sneezing and close contact. It is a serious condition especially for infants, young children, pregnant women and adults over 65. And it can be deadly.

Anyone can get influenza. Symptoms vary by age but can include: fever/chills, sore throat, muscle aches, fatigue, cough, headache and a runny or stuffy nose. Influenza symptoms are usually worse than a cold and last longer. Influenza usually does not cause vomiting and diarrhea in adults.

Influenza can lead to pneumonia and blood infections. If you have a medical condition, such as heart or lung disease, influenza can make it worse. People with certain health conditions or weakened immune systems are at greatest risk. Each year thousands of people in the U.S. die from influenza and many more are hospitalized.

For us, fall and winter months are the prime time for the influenza virus, but the timing is very unpredictable and can vary in different parts of the country and from season to season.

Influenza (flu) vaccine can reduce your chances of getting influenza, or it can make influenza less severe if you do get it. It also helps to prevent spreading flu to your family and other people. Flu vaccine will protect you from certain strains of influenza but it cannot prevent flu caused by other virus strains not covered by the vaccine or illnesses that look like influenza, but are not.

A dose of flu vaccine is recommended every flu season. Infants need their first dose of flu vaccine at 6 months of age. There is no live flu virus in flu shots. Getting a flu shot cannot cause you to get influenza.

It takes about two weeks for protection to develop after vaccination, and protection lasts through the flu season. So now is the time to make plans to get flu shots for yourself and your family. Flu shots are available at your primary care provider's office and many local pharmacies. Some clinics require an appointment, others will give flu shots to walk-ins. Call ahead to know what your clinic's policy is.

Flu shots are not perfect, but they are the best protection modern science has against the disease. If you have questions about flu shots or where you can get one, please call your medical clinic or Horizon Public Health at 320-208-6670.

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