Preventing the Flu


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What is influenza?

Influenza (also called "the flu") is a viral infection in the nose, throat, and lungs. About 10 to 20% of Americans get the flu each year. Some people can get very sick from the flu. 

The flu may cause fever, cough, sore throat, a runny or stuffy nose, headache, muscle aches, and tiredness. Most people feel better after one or two weeks, but for some people, the flu leads to serious diseases, such as pneumonia. The influenza vaccine can help protect you from getting the flu.

Who is at higher risk?

The following people have a higher risk of flu complications:

  • Young children, especially those younger than two years of age
  • Adults 65 years of age and older
  • All women who are or will be pregnant during the flu season
  • People who are living in nursing homes or long-term-care facilities
  • Individuals who have long-term health problems

How can I avoid getting the flu?

The best way to avoid getting the flu is to get the flu vaccine every year. You should get the vaccine as soon as it becomes available each fall, but you can also get it any time throughout the flu season (usually until March). The vaccine is available by shot or by nasal spray. The vaccines work by exposing your immune system to an inactive form of the flu virus. Your body will build up antibodies to the virus to protect you from getting the flu. The nasal- spray vaccine contains active, but weakened viruses. You cannot get the flu from the flu shot or the nasal- spray vaccine.

You can also reduce your risk of catching the flu by washing your hands frequently, which stops the spread of germs. Eating healthy, exercising, and getting enough sleep also play a part in preventing the flu because they help boost your immune system.

If you are sick, make sure that you cover your mouth when you cough and wash your hands often to prevent giving the flu to others.

Some people who get the vaccine will still get the flu, but they may get a milder case than people who are not vaccinated. 

Should I get the flu vaccine?

Yes. All persons who are six months of age or older should get the flu vaccine. 

Is there anyone who shouldn't get the flu vaccine?

Yes. The following people should talk to their doctor before getting the flu shot:

  • People who have had a severe allergic reaction to a flu vaccine in the past
  • People who have an allergy to eggs
  • People who previously developed Guillain-BarrĂ© Syndrome (a reversible reaction that causes partial or complete loss of movement of muscles, weakness, or a tingling sensation in the body) within six weeks of getting a flu vaccine
  • Children younger than six months of age

Is there anyone who shouldn't get the nasal-spray vaccine?

Yes. The following people should talk to their doctor before getting the nasal- spray vaccine:

  • Children less than two years of age
  • Adults 50 years of age and older
  • People who have long-term health problems
  • People who have weakened immune systems
  • Children or adolescents who are on long-term aspirin therapy
  • People who have diabetes, kidney disease, heart disease, or lung disease
  • People with a history of Guillain-BarrĂ© syndrome
  • Pregnant women
  • People who have had a severe allergic reaction to a flu vaccine in the past or who are allergic to eggs

If I get the flu vaccine, can I still get the flu?

Yes. Even with a flu vaccine, you aren't 100% protected. Each year, the flu vaccine contains different strains (kinds) of the virus. The strains chosen are those that scientists believe are most likely to show up in the United States that year. If the choice is right, the vaccine can be as much as 70 to 90% effective in preventing the flu in healthy adults. Even if you get the flu after being vaccinated, your flu symptoms can be milder than if you didn't get the vaccine. You'll also reduce your risk of complications from the flu.

A note about vaccines

Sometimes the amount of a certain vaccine cannot keep up with the number of people who need it. More info...

Is the vaccine safe?

Yes. The flu vaccine is safe. There are very few side effects. If you received the flu shot, your arm may be sore for a few days. You may have a low grade fever, feel tired, or have sore muscles for a short time. If you received the nasal- spray vaccine, you may have a runny nose, headache, cough, or sore throat.

Can I get the flu vaccine if I am pregnant or nursing?

If you are pregnant during flu season, you cannot get the nasal- spray vaccine. However, it is recommended that women who will be pregnant during flu season get the shot. Pregnancy can increase your risk for complications from the flu.

It is also safe to get the flu shot while breastfeeding your baby. The flu shot cannot cause your nursing baby to get sick.

What are antiviral flu drugs?

Antiviral flu drugs are prescription medicines that can be used to help treat the flu. If you take one of these drugs within two days of getting sick, it can lessen your symptoms, decrease the amount of time you are sick, and make you less contagious to other people. However, most healthy people who have the flu get better without using an antiviral flu drug. Your doctor will decide whether one of these medicines is right for you.

Where can I learn more about the flu vaccine?

For more information, you can call the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Immunization Information Hotline at these numbers:

1-800-232-2522 (English)

1-800-232-0233 (Spanish)

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Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff

Reviewed/Updated: 01/16
Created: 09/00

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