Getting a flu vaccination is important to protect against the dangers of severe illness from the flu virus.

Dr. Charles Bregier

The flu can lead to serious complications. Dr. Charles Bregier, Novant Health medical director of corporate health, answers some questions about flu season.

Some people don’t believe in flu shots, or skip years between vaccinations. Why should people not put off a flu shot, no matter what their situation is?

Flu is very contagious and it can cause severe illness and complications. The flu is prevented very well most seasons by getting a flu vaccine. It can make your arm muscle a little sore, but it’s local discomfort that all people generally get. It can protect you from the flu. More importantly, it can protect family members from the flu. If you get the flu, and you bring it home and you have a family member who has underlying asthma, emphysema, heart disease, liver disease, kidney disease, any number of chronic conditions, they could get extremely ill.

Can the flu vaccine or the COVID-19 vaccine protect me the same?

No, they're two different viruses, and you need two different vaccinations. The influenza vaccine basically protects against the four dominant strains of flu that were prevalent in the Southern Hemisphere during our summer, which is their winter. Those are the strains that typically spread to the Northern Hemisphere during our winter. It's normally two influenza A strains and two influenza B strains. The coronavirus is a totally different type of virus, and you need a COVID vaccine in order to provide protection. There is going to be no cross-immunity between an influenza vaccine and a COVID-19 vaccine.

diabetes patient

Find the expert care you need

Act now

When is the best time to get the flu vaccine and how long is it effective?

October is a really good time. Certainly try to get it by end of October. If you get it early in September or in August, it may lose its effectiveness before the end of flu season. The flu vaccine is generally effective for about six months. Typically, flu season goes until March or April. We've had some years when it has gone into May. That is unusual, but it can happen. We don't know when flu season will peak.

Will getting a flu shot make me sick?

Flu vaccines are made from inactivated influenza viruses. They are dead particles. Because the vaccine is inactivated, it cannot make you sick.

People who say, “Oh gosh, five years ago, I got a flu shot. And three days later, I was sick with the flu.” That's really bad luck, because it wasn't the flu shot that made them sick. We are all out and about in a grocery store, in a barbershop, in Walmart or somewhere else, and one of those places is likely where that person was exposed to the flu. In previous years, while I think stores generally had good hygiene and sanitation standards, it wasn't taken to the level it's been taken now because of COVID-19.

Is the flu vaccination available in nasal spray? If so, is that an advantage?

That's still a bit of a controversial topic. Most of us think that it probably does not provide as high a degree of immunity or protection as an injection does. We are recommending people get the injection instead of the nasal spray. Where we do see that the nasal spray has more value is among small children who have needle phobias. For them, the nasal spray is likely better than nothing and should provide some protection.

What can I do to help myself if I do get the flu?

If you get a flu shot and then contract one of these strains of the flu that was part of the flu vaccine, you generally get less sick than someone who has not received the flu vaccine.

If you do get the flu, you need to take good care of yourself. Hydration is really important. Treat your fever with fever-reducing medicines. Acetominophen is generally the medication of choice. But for many people, ibuprofen might work better.

A decongestant product like a saline nasal wash or a neti pot may be helpful to clear mucus and ease breathing. In September 2023, the FDA announced that oral delivery of the decongestant drug phenylephrine is not effective, and as a result some pharmacies pulled this from shelves. A replacement for this is products that contain the active ingredient pseudoephedrine, however this may not be safe for children and people with high blood pressure, so check with your doctor before taking it.

You want to try to get a lot of rest and eat healthy. Get a little bit of exercise by walking around, but not too much. Don't push yourself too hard.

Most importantly, you want to try to quarantine yourself from other people within your home to try to keep them from getting the flu from you. If you can keep out of the kitchen, that's good. If you can use a separate bathroom, that's good. The flu is a relatively mild-to-moderate illness from which the vast majority of people recover completely in three days to a week.

What age groups and type of patients are at higher risk for developing complications from the flu?

Anyone who has chronic medical problems like asthma, emphysema, heart disease, lung disease, immune-compromised conditions for whatever reason, or is taking medication that causes your immune system to be weakened, are at higher risk. Elderly people over 65 are at higher risk of more complications. Also, small children under age 5 are thought to be at higher risk. Additionally, pregnant women are somewhat at higher risk. It is universally recommended that all pregnant women, regardless of where you are in your pregnancy, should get a flu shot.

What other steps can you take to prevent getting the flu?

Masking is a really good idea. Keeping your hands away from your face, eyes, mouth and nose is always important. Keep hand sanitizer in your pocket and use it regularly. When you're out in public, put it on as you leave. Avoid touching things that are commonly touched. If you're coming in through a door, use your elbow to push the door open instead of touching it with your hand. If you're in a public restroom, and you're washing your hands, use a paper towel to turn off the hot and cold water faucets. Be very aware of your surroundings, of what you're doing and what you're touching.

What are the additional health risks of contracting the flu and COVID-19 at the same time?

Each of these viruses can cause significant disease. I'm very concerned about what the mortality and morbidity could be for someone who has a co-infection. We should do anything and everything we can do to protect ourselves from either of them. That should help keep ourselves and our community much healthier.