The 2017-2018 influenza season was one of the most severe in more than a decade, with high levels of hospitalization and mortality.
The 2017-2018 influenza season was one of the most severe in more than a decade, with high levels of hospitalization and mortality. The harsh season resulted in an estimated 80,000 deaths, including 185 known pediatric deaths, according to the CDC.1Although health officials cannot predict whether the 2018-2019 flu season will be equally severe, they are urging people to take preventive measures to keep the flu from spreading, with an emphasis on getting vaccinated.
Flu prevention is crucial, as flu can lead to serious complications and death, especially among those with weakened immune systems, according to the CDC.2
The CDC notes that vaccination is the best way to prevent the spread of flu, and it recommends vaccines for everyone older than 6 months.3Flu vaccines are particularly important for patients with a high risk of complications, including adults over 65 years; children under 5 years; patients with chronic conditions such as asthma, blood disorders, endocrine disorders such as diabetes, kidney disorders, liver disorders, lung diseases, and neurodevelopmental and neurological conditions; postpartum and pregnant women; and residents of long-term-care facilities, according to Kristen Nordlund, a CDC spokesperson.
“Flu vaccines have a good safety record. Hundreds of millions of Americans have safely received flu vaccines over the past 50 years, and there has been extensive research supporting the safety of flu vaccines,” Nordlund said in an interview.
Each year, investigators predict which flu strain will be the most active, with yearly vaccines containing 3 or 4 of these strains. These predictions are based on year-round flu surveillance from more than 100 national influenza centers with oversight from the World Health Organization. Because the vaccine cannot protect against unpredicted flu strains, the vaccine’s effectiveness can vary each year.
Results from recent studies show that the flu vaccine reduces the risk of being infected with flu virus by 40% to 60% when viruses that are circulating most match the vaccine’s formulation, according to the CDC.2
Although a vaccine does not guarantee complete immunity, it can help reduce the seriousness of influenza if an individual is infected. Getting vaccinated can decrease the risk of flu-related hospitalization, prevent absence from school or work, limit flu-related doctor visits, and reduce the length of the illness, according to the CDC.2
Despite flu vaccines’ wide acceptance as the best way to prevent flu, some people are not inclined to get the shot because they believe they can get infected from the vaccine and have misconceptions about its effectiveness.2
“The vaccines contain either inactivated virus, meaning the viruses are no longer infectious, or a particle designed to look like a flu virus to your immune system,” Nordlund said. “Although the nasal spray flu vaccine does contain a live virus, the viruses are changed so that they cannot give you the flu.”
Aside from getting vaccinated, there are other basic hygiene actions that individuals can take to prevent the spread of flu: avoiding contact with sick people; cleaning surfaces around people who may be sick; covering their mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing; limiting contact with others while sick, including staying home from school or work; not touching their eyes, mouth, and nose; taking antivirals when necessary; and washing hands often, according to the CDC.4
Recognizing the symptoms of the flu and seeking treatment are important steps in preventing the virus from spreading.5Symptoms of the flu can be similar to those of the common cold (Figure), which may confuse patients about which virus they have, Nordlund said.
“Flu and the common cold are both respiratory illnesses, but they are caused by different viruses,” Nordlund added. In general, flu is worse than the common cold, and symptoms are more common and intense,” she said.
Symptoms such as body aches, fever, and headaches are more likely with flu and will have an abrupt onset and heightened intensity compared with those of the common cold. Chills and fatigue are common during the flu, while they are less intense or likely for the common cold. Chest discomfort and coughing are common with both colds and the flu, but they are often milder with a cold.
Finally, symptoms such as sneezing, a sore throat, and a stuffy nose are more common with colds than the flu, according to the CDC.5
The CDC recommends that patients remain aware of the differentiation between the common cold and the flu and seek medical attention if they are experiencing flu symptoms. Early treatment with antivirals can prevent the virus from spreading to others.5
Keeping these tips in mind, pharmacists can play an important role in preventing the spread of flu. “Pharmacists can do 2 things this flu season to prevent flu spreading.” Nordlund said. “This starts with getting themselves vaccinated in order to keep themselves and their colleagues protected. Second, they can educate and vaccinate the people who come to see them.”