A sign reads, "Influenza vaccine."
Make your plan today to keep the flu at bay this season. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Bake an apple pie. Admire colorful leaves. Sip a pumpkin spice latte.

And roll up your sleeve for a flu vaccine.

If you include that quick shot in the arm in your autumn traditions, you boost your odds of avoiding influenza in the chilly months to come, says Rosemary Olivero, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

“Even normally healthy people can get severe influenza,” she said. “You can still get hospitalized. You can still get secondary bacterial pneumonia.”

And vaccinations communitywide can protect those at greatest risk from influenza, particularly babies who are too young for the vaccine.

“Our very young and our very old are always going to be at the highest risk for severe influenza,” she said.

Also at high risk: pregnant women, people with suppressed immune systems or chronic conditions such as asthma and heart disease.

How bad will the flu season be?

“It’s really difficult to know,” Dr. Olivero said. “It has a lot to do with climate and how waves of viruses move throughout the country.”

Michigan’s flu season typically peaks after the winter holidays and sputters out by April.

Last year, the peak hit about two months late. And the flu season lingered much longer.

“It was very unpleasant,” Dr. Olivero said.

Now is the time to get the vaccine, she added. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with four other global agencies, adjusted this year’s flu vaccine to better match the influenza strains expected to circulate in the U.S. Health officials changed the two A antigen components and left the two B virus components unchanged.

“But even if the flu vaccine is not perfect and doesn’t prevent 100% of influenza cases, it can still prevent thousands of hospitalizations,” Dr. Olivero said. “That’s a big win, too.”

If you get the vaccine—and end up getting the flu—the illness likely will be less severe and of shorter duration.

In the 2018-19 influenza season, the overall vaccine effectiveness was 38 percent and yet it still paid big benefits, according to a study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases. It prevented:

  • 7.1 million illnesses
  • 109,000 hospitalizations
  • 8,000 deaths

Studies by CDC researchers, published in Healio, found in recent years that flu vaccines:

  • In children, reduced the risk of influenza-related hospitalization by 50%.
  • In adults, reduced the odds of severe outcomes, including death, by 36%.

Some people mistakenly think the vaccine can make them sick, Dr. Olivero added.

“Getting the flu vaccine does not give you the flu,” she said.

You might experience a short-lived fever, feel run down or have a sore arm at the site of the injection. But that’s not because you have influenza. Those effects are signs of your immune system revving up.

“It’s normal and expected—and it’s way better than getting the flu,” she said.

Which vaccine

The CDC recommends flu vaccines for everyone 6 months and older.

Those 2 to 49 years old can receive the vaccine in a nasal spray called FluMist. But the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends injections as the primary choice for children.

“The shot is more effective, so that’s our first recommendation,” Dr. Olivero said.

Two vaccine options are designed for people 65 and older:

  • Fluzone High-Dose, which contains four times the antigens of a standard vaccine
  • Fluad, a standard-dose shot with an added ingredient designed to produce a stronger immune response.

If the flu strikes

The flu often comes on suddenly, causing a cough, sore throat, runny nose, headache and body aches. It can also cause a fever, but that is not always the case, the CDC says.

Most people recover in a few days to up to two weeks. But some develop complications such as pneumonia, which can be life-threatening.

For those who do get influenza, Dr. Olivero advised taking the antiviral drug Tamiflu, also known by its generic name, oseltamivir.

“Folks have been timid about the use of the antiviral drug,” she said.

A study shows the medication, if taken within 48 hours of first symptoms, can shorten a bout of influenza by a day. That may not sound impressive to some.

But she and other infectious disease doctors believe many benefit from it.

“If your husband is diagnosed with influenza and you get ill two days later, which is very typical, you could take (Tamiflu) the same day,” she said. “Most of us would say it turns the illness around extremely quickly, but that’s not captured in medical studies.”

Early treatment is especially important for those with chronic medical conditions.

Preventing the flu

In addition to getting a flu vaccine, the CDC recommends everyday steps to help stop the spread of influenza:

  • Stay away from sick people.
  • Wash your hands regularly to prevent the spread of germs.
  • If you get the flu, stay home from work or school.