Flu, Pneumonia Shots Especially Important This Winter

by Dr. Hojat Askari, Medical Director, Thumb Butte Medical Center

What is the flu? 

The flu is an upper respiratory disease caused by the influenza virus, which infects the nose, throat and lungs. Its severity can range from mild to severe depending on the strain of the virus being spread each year. 

Flu is usually spread through droplets released into the air when an infected person talks, coughs or sneezes, and less often through contact with a surface that’s been touched by someone who’s been infected by the virus. People are usually most contagious in the first three to four days after their illness begins, though in some cases this period lasts longer. 

Flu can lead to serious complications including bacterial pneumonia or worsening of pre-existing conditions including asthma or heart disease. Patients older than 65 or younger than 5, those with chronic conditions, including diabetes and pregnant women, are at higher risk for severe complications or death. 

The onset of flu symptoms generally happens quickly. They include: 

  • Feeling feverish/chills.
  • Coughing, stuffy or runny nose.
  • Sore throat, muscle or body aches, headaches.
  • Fatigue. 
  • Vomiting and diarrhea, more common in children than adults.

What is the flu vaccine? 

The vaccine comes in two forms, an injection that contains killed or recombinant flu virus and a nasal spray, which that has weakened live influenza virus. Both protect against three or four of the strains of the virus expected to be the most active during the flu season. 

The strains change enough from year to year that a new vaccine is needed every year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone 6 months and older be vaccinated before every flu season, with rare exceptions. 

A reaction to the vaccine can cause achiness and other flulike symptoms in some people for a few days after it’s administered, but this is not due to an infection. It usually takes two weeks to achieve full strength. 

Even when you’re infected by a strain of flu that doesn’t match the ones covered in the flu vaccine, your symptoms are likely to be less severe than they would have been if you hadn’t been vaccinated. 

What is pneumococcal disease (pneumonia)? 

This is a bacteria-caused disease that can cause pneumonia when it affects the lung; meningitis when it affects the lining of the brain; and sepsis if it enters the bloodstream. All three forms can lead to serious complications or death, particularly in older adults. 

Symptoms of pneumococcal disease can develop quickly. Depending on which kind of infection is involved, symptoms can include: 

  • Very sudden onset of high fever. 
  • Chills, cough, shortness of breath.
  • Chest pain, stiff neck and disorientation. 
  • Confusion or lack of alertness, particularly in older adults.

Pneumococcal vaccines

This vaccine comes in two forms, which may be recommended by health-care providers depending on the age of the patient. The CDC recommends children up to age 2 and adults older than 65 be vaccinated every year, as well as children and adults who have certain risk factors. These are estimated to be 75% to 80% effective against invasive pneumococcal disease (including meningitis and sepsis) in young children and seniors, but less so against pneumonia in older adults. 

Why is getting vaccinated so important this year? 

These immunizations do not offer any protection against COVID-19, but they do protect people from other illnesses that can be mistaken for COVID and/or take up health-care resources needed to care for individuals with COVID. 

Thumb Butte Medical Center offers walk-in appointments for flu vaccines; call 928-445-1785 for more information. Also call to make an appointment if you believe you have the flu or pneumococcal disease or call 911 if you or someone else has life-threatening symptoms.