Bridge is published by the Boston University Office of University Relations.
Shots or not? What to do before the flu hits you
the flu season here, I'm trying to decide whether to get a flu shot. What
exactly is the flu, and will a shot prevent me from contracting it?
Only a few things in this life are certain. Death and taxes are two --
and the flu season, with its debut in late fall, is most definitely a
Influenza, known more commonly as the flu, involves the body's respiratory
system. Many gastrointestinal illnesses are incorrectly referred to as
the flu; influenza involves the respiratory system and is caused by a
virus that lives in the nose and throat. When an infected person coughs,
sneezes, or talks, the virus is released into the air. If a nearby person
inhales the airborne virus, he or she may develop the flu.
Once you've contracted the flu, it usually takes about two to three days
for symptoms to appear. Typically, you will experience sudden onset of
fever, cough, muscle aches, headache, and general weakness. Most people
feel better within a week, but a few develop influenza pneumonia and may
become seriously ill.
Three types of viruses, known as A, B and C, cause the flu, and each year
three different strains of the illness usually circulate. "The flu
virus is a pretty tricky virus," says Helen Hollingsworth, M.D.,
of the Section of Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Allergy in the department
of medicine at Boston Medical Center and associate professor of medicine
at Boston University School of Medicine.
"Unlike other illnesses for which childhood vaccinations can provide
lifelong immunity, the flu changes its overcoat each year. As a result,
your body's immune system may not recognize the flu from one year to the
next and may not be able to fight the virus off as quickly."
Because a virus, rather than bacteria, causes the flu, antibiotics are
not effective. As a result, a shot may be the best defense against developing
the illness. Each year, researchers who develop the shot try to predict
what strains of flu will be active in the upcoming season. Hollingsworth
says it is important to get a flu shot each year because the strain of
the virus changes yearly.
According to Hollingsworth, the vaccine is a noninfectious killed flu
virus, and as such, cannot give you the flu. "You can get mild muscles
aches and fever, but that's your body's immune system responding to the
shot and not the flu itself," she says.
People who should consider getting a flu shot include those over the age
of 65, people with weakened immune systems and those with heart, lung,
or kidney disease, and women in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy.
Others who are at greater risk of contracting the flu include residents
of long-term care facilities and health-care workers. Children and teenagers
who take aspirin to treat specific medical conditions should also get
a flu shot.
The flu season runs from October through April. The best time to get a
flu shot, according to Hollingsworth, is sometime between October 15 and
the beginning of December. "You don't want to get the shot too early,
because the immunity can wane," she says, "but getting a shot
too late in the flu season doesn't allow enough time to develop the needed
If you do contract the flu, bed rest and plenty of fluids are the keys
to recovery. Prescription medicines such as zanamivir, which is inhaled,
and oseltamivir, amantadine and rimantadine, which are taken by mouth,
may help ease symptoms of certain strains of the virus, but only if they
are started early enough.
The University offers free flu shots annually to faculty and staff. This
year's flu vaccine clinics are on Monday, October 15, and Wednesday, October
Matters" is written in cooperation with staff members of Boston Medical
Center. For more information on alternative medicine or other health matters,