What Is Influenza?
Influenza is an infection of the upper airway known as the flu. It is caused by a strain of the influenza virus. There are many types of these viruses but the two that most often infect humans include:
- Type A
- Type B
Each year the flu spreads around the world. It spreads most often from person to person. Someone who is infected releases the virus through droplets in sneezes or coughs. Others inhale these droplets, then become sick. The virus can also land on a surface. Someone can become infected if they touch the surface then touch their mouth or nose. For most, the flu will cause fever, aches, fatigue, coughing, stuffiness, and sore throat. Some people have a higher risk of a severe infection. It may lead to hospital care. Risk factors for severe complications include:
- Age younger than 5 years or age 65 years and older
- Certain medical conditions, including:
- Suppressed immune system, such as those with HIV, cancer, or chronic steroid use
- Current pregnancy
- Long-term aspirin therapy in people under 19 years old
- American Indian and Alaskan Native ancestry
- Severe obesity
What Is the Influenza Vaccine (Flu Shot)?
This vaccine uses pieces of the virus. These pieces cannot cause an infection but will show the immune system what the virus looks like. The body will then be able to fight the virus before an infection starts. Full protection can start within a few days. There are different types of flu vaccine:
- Inactivated influenza vaccine—dead, inactive virus. Can be given through shots.
- Recombinant influenza vaccine—use item that mimics part of the virus. Can be used for people with egg allergy. Can be given through shots.
- Live attenuated influenza vaccine—weakened part of the virus. Given only through nose spray.
A doctor will help to find which shots will be best for each person. Age and overall health will play a role in the decision.
The flu virus changes each year so, the shots need to be given each year. There are many types of the flu virus. Researchers will pick the 4 most likely types of flu to spread that flu season. It is possible to be infected with a type of flu virus that was not included in the vaccine. However, the illness is often less severe.
Who Should Get Vaccinated and When?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that anyone aged 6 months and older should get a flu shot. It should be done every year.
It takes about 2 weeks for the vaccine to have full effect. The best time to get a flu shot is as soon as the shot is available. This will protect you before the flu comes to the community.
What Are the Risks Associated With the Influenza Vaccine?
The flu shot is safe for almost all people. There is a small risk of serious problems such as severe allergic reaction.
Minor side effects associated with the flu shot include:
- Soreness, redness, and swelling around the injection site
- Low-grade fever
- Muscle aches
Minor side effects associated with the nasal spray vaccine include:
- Runny nose
- Muscle aches
- Sore throat
Who Should Not Get Vaccinated?
There is a higher risk of problems from the flu shot in people with 1 or more of the following:
- Have any severe (life-threatening) allergies to chicken eggs
- Have had a severe reaction to the flu vaccine in the past
- Have had Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS)
- Are currently very sick with a fever
The following people should not get the nasal spray :
- Are aged 24 months or younger
- Have asthma
- Are aged 2 to 4 years who have had wheezing in the past 12 months
- Have a condition that may increase their risk of flu complications
- Adults aged 50 years and older
- Adults with:
- Chronic condition, such as heart disease, lung disease, asthma, kidney or liver disease, metabolic disease, blood disorders
- Nerve or muscle disorder
- Weakened immune system
- Close contact with others who have a weakened immune system
- Nose issues which makes it difficult to breath
- Other vaccines in the last 4 weeks
- Influenza antiviral medicine within the previous 48 hours
- Pregnant women
- Children or teens on long-term aspirin therapy
What Other Ways Can Influenza Be Prevented?
Habits that may decrease your exposure to the flu virus include:
- Avoid close contact with people who have cold or flu.
- Wash your hands often. This is most important to do after contact with someone who is sick. Alcohol-based cleaners on your hands is also useful.
- Do not share drinks or personal items.
- Do not put your hands near your eyes, mouth, or nose.
To reduce spread of flu to others, cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze. Use your elbow or a tissue as cover.
What Happens in the Event of an Outbreak?
Get a flu shot if you have not already done so. The more people who have had flu shots the safer the community will be. Viruses will have a harder time passing from person to person if most have had the flu shot. Follow other steps like washing your hands even if you have had the flu shot.
WHERE CAN I GET MORE INFORMATION?
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Public Health Agency of Canada
US Food & Drug Administration
Key factors about influenza vaccine. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/prevent/keyfacts.htm#match. Accessed May 10, 2019.
Influenza in adults. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:https://www.dynamed.com/condition/influenza-in-adults. Accessed May 10, 2019.
Influenza in children. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:https://www.dynamed.com/condition/influenza-in-children. Accessed May 10, 2019.
Seasonal influenza vaccines in adults. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:https://www.dynamed.com/prevention/seasonal-influenza-vaccines-in-adults. Accessed May 10, 2019.
Seasonal influenza vaccines in children. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:https://www.dynamed.com/prevention/seasonal-influenza-vaccines-in-children. Accessed May 10, 2019.
Seasonal influenza vaccines in the elderly. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:https://www.dynamed.com/prevention/seasonal-influenza-vaccine-in-older-adults. Accessed May 10, 2019.
Last reviewed September 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Chelsea Skucek, MSN, BS, RNC-NIC Last Updated: 8/7/2020