by Rachel Gore

For much of the nation, the fall and winter seasons bring cozy sweater weather, changing leaves and festive holiday celebrations, making it many people’s favorite time of year. Unfortunately, however, the colder seasons also bring flu season, which consistently proves itself to be a deadly force.

Flu season is the time of year when the influenza virus is at its most contagious. The United States Centers for Dis-ease Control & Prevention (CDC) estimates that between 9.3 million and 49 million flu illness cases have occurred annually since 2010. Similarly, the CDC estimates that the flu results in 140,000 to 960,000 hospitalizations every year. Death tolls vary widely by flu season, with a low in the past decade of around 12,000 flu-related deaths (in the 2011-2012 flu season) and a high of around 79,000 deaths (in the 2017-2018 season).

The flu virus, which is extremely contagious, is spread primarily through coughing, sneezing or talking with someone who already has the virus. A less common, but still possible, way to get the flu is by touching a surface with the virus on it then touching your mouth, nose or eyes. Signs and symptoms of the flu include:

  • Coughing
  • Feeling tired or fatigued
  • Feeling feverish or having chills
  • Having a fever
  • Sore throat
  • Stuffy nose
  • Headaches
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Less common symptoms: vomiting and diarrhea

While following personal hygiene tips like hand washing, covering your mouth when you cough and avoiding touching your face can somewhat protect you from the flu, there is one scientifical-ly-backed preventative tip that far exceeds the others: getting the flu vaccine.

Why You Should Get the Flu Vaccine
Influenza viruses circulate all year, but a majority of flu activity occurs during flu season. In the United States, flu season hits hardest in the fall and winter months, typically peaking between December and February. To best protect yourself from the flu, the CDC recommends that Americans get flu shots by the end of October, as it takes about two weeks for the shot to be fully effective. Being vaccinated later than that can still be beneficial and protect you from the flu, though, so don’t avoid going just because you missed the ideal time frame.

Getting the flu shot every season is recommended for the vast majority of people six months and older. Most U.S. flu shots are quadrivalents, which means they protect against four different flu viruses: an influenza A (H1N1) virus, an influenza A (H3N2) virus and two influenza B viruses. Flu vaccines work by causing antibodies to develop in the body that protects against flu viruses similar to those used to make the shot.

Each year, various strains of influenza pop up, making it difficult for scientists to pinpoint exactly what each flu season will look like in advance. Global health experts attempt to predict what upcoming flu will consist of based on year-round surveil-lance conducted in over 100 national influenza centers in 100 countries. If a specific strain does not emerge until later in the flu season, it can be too late to effectively prepare a large number of vaccines to fight against it. This is why flu shots have varying levels of effectiveness on a year-to-year basis and even within single seasons.

There is a common misconception that the flu shot itself causes the flu, but this is not true. It is true that people can have mild reactions to vaccines like muscle aches, headaches and low-grade fevers as well as localized swelling and tenderness where the injection was given. These symptoms only last one to two days and are extremely minor compared to the flu itself.

While most people who get the flu recover, this isn’t the case for everyone. With that being said, vaccines are especially important for individuals who are at high risk for flu complications (e.g., pneumonia, bronchitis and ear infections), which can result in long-term hospitalization and even death. Groups considered at-risk for serious flu complications include:

  • Older adults ages 65+
  • Pregnant women
  • Young children ages 5 and under
  • People with asthma, heart disease, diabetes, HIV/AIDS and cancer
  • Children with neurological conditions including cerebral palsy, epilepsy, intellectual disabilities, developmental delays, muscular dystrophy and brain/spinal cord disorders
  • People who have had a stroke

It is important to note that even if none of these categories apply to you, your decision to get a vaccine can be life-saving for someone else who is vulnerable to serious complications. If you decide not to get a flu shot and become infected, you can then pass on the influenza virus to other people you come in contact with whose immune systems may not be able to fight off like yours can.

Flu Vaccination Benefits
According to the CDC, flu vaccinations come with a number of widespread public health benefits. Flu shots:

  • Reduce the risk of going to the doctor with the flu by 40-60%
  • Prevent millions of illnesses annually
  • Prevent tens of thousands of hospitalizations annually
  • Reduce children’s risk of flu-related pediatric intensive care unit admission by 74%
  • Reduce pregnant women’s chances of flu-related hospitalization by 40%
  • Protect newborn babies whose mothers were vaccinated during pregnancy for multiple months after birth (before they’re old enough to be vaccinated themselves)
    Reduce the severity and duration of the flu in people who are vaccinated but become sick anyway

Other Flu Season Tips
Though the flu shot is by far the best plan of defense, there are a handful of other tips that can help protect you and others from the flu this season:

  • Wash your hands frequently and use hand sanitizer after touching public surfaces.
  • Keep up a healthy lifestyle—eating right, exercising and managing stress all promote a healthier immune system response that is better able to fight off disease.
  • Don’t sneeze or cough into your hands.
  • Stay home and avoid contact with others while you’re sick. It is especially important to avoid contact with people who have weakened immune systems, such as very old and very young individuals if you have any symptoms of the flu.