Q&A: How Not to Get the Flu – Or At Least Improve Your Chances

Dr. Jenilee Lawrence headshot

Dr. Jenilee Lawrence practices internal medicine at the University Health System’s clinic at Zion’s Crossroads. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Nobody likes the flu. But flu season is upon us, and people the world over will spend the next few months trying to avoid the wretched experience of having one of humanity’s most infamous and reviled maladies.

To help us dodge the bug, Dr. Jenilee Lawrence of the University of Virginia Health System appeared on the University’s Facebook page to talk about the virus, its annual mutations and whether the flu shot is a good idea (spoiler: it is) and to share preventative strategies for anyone who’d rather not have to deal with an influenza infection.

Watch the video and see some of her answers below.

Q. When does the flu season begin and how long does it last?

A. We think of it as starting typically in October, and it goes all the way through May. However, the peak months of the flu are December, January and February. We do see cases year-round, but those are typically thought of as the peak months.  

Q. What can people do to protect themselves from the flu?

A. The most important thing that people can do to guard against getting the flu is to get vaccinated. Flu shots can be given to anybody six months of age or older. The more people who get the flu shot, the more people are protected. The best time of year to get the flu vaccine is October, but we’re still in a wonderful time of year to get the flu vaccine. We vaccinate all the way through the winter months, so even in January and February, we’re giving out the vaccination in our clinic.

We especially recommend that high-risk patients to get the flu shot. That includes the elderly, anyone who has chronic illnesses, pregnant women or anyone who has a lot of comorbid illnesses.

Q. What else can you do in addition to the flu shot?

A. Another very important thing you can do to guard against the flu, and to stay healthy in the flu season, is to wash your hands. Washing your hands with soap and water, singing “happy birthday” to yourself twice while you wash your hands, and drying them with a clean paper towel every time really helps protect against transmission of cold and flu viruses.

In addition, it’s important to stay away from people who are sick. Also, plenty of sleep, lots of fluids, eating a healthy diet that is high in fruits and vegetables – all of these things will help keep you healthy.

Q. Is the vaccination the same year after year?

A. The vaccination changes each year. This year, the H1N1 strain has been updated. Each year the viruses mutate and drift, so the scientists and researchers who put together the flu vaccine change it based on the strains that are predicted to be the hot strains this year.

Q. Is the flu shot a 100 percent guarantee?

A. It’s not. Typically the flu shot has about 40 to 60 percent efficacy if the strains that it covers are present in the population. What that means is that it has a 40 to 60 percent chance of covering the flu strains it says it will cover. What about the other flu strains? You can get some protection from the antibodies that are formed by taking the flu shot, so we still always recommend getting the flu shot.

Q. If you get it, how do you keep your family members from getting sick? What if you’re the parent of a child, how do you keep from getting it yourself?

A. If you are sick, staying away from family members is important. Sometimes even wearing a mask in the house if you know you have to be around small children can help, and you should really stay out of work and out of public places.

The flu is transmitted by respiratory droplets, so you’re going to be at the highest risk when you are sneezed on or coughed on. If you’re the parent of a sick child, you should wash your hands and face as much as possible. Keeping cups and dishes separate can also help.

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