Frequently Asked Questions

What is influenza (flu)?

Influenza is caused by viruses which infect the respiratory tract (i.e., the nose, throat, and lungs). The flu can cause severe illness and life-threatening complications in many people (in fact influenza/pneumonia is in the top ten causes of death in Iowa).

How does the flu spread?

The flu is usually spread through the air by tiny droplets made when people with the flu cough or sneeze -these droplets can move 3 to 6 feet through the air. Occasionally the flu can spread by shaking the hand of someone with the flu who coughed into their hand. Rarely the flu can be spread by touching doorknobs or handrails that someone with the flu touched and then you touching your mouth or nose.

When can someone spread the flu to others?

You can spread the flu to others up to a day before you start feeling sick (which is why it is so important to always cover your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing). And up to 7 days after becoming sick (which is why you should stay home when you have the flu and not return until your fever and severe symptoms have been gone for 24 hours).

Who is most likely to have complications of the flu like pneumonia?

1) Children younger than 2 years old

2) Adults 65 years of age and older

3) Pregnant women

4) Persons with chronic medical problems like asthma, heart or lung disease or weakened immune system caused by cancer or taking drugs like steroids.

If I got the flu or the flu vaccine last year, will I have immunity against the flu this year?

No. Most immunity to the flu only lasts about a year, and the type of flu can change from year to year. This is why it is important to get your flu shot every year.

If I am exposed to the flu, how soon will I get sick?

It takes about 2 days after someone spreads the flu virus to you before you start getting sick.

Is there medicine for the flu that I can take?

Yes. There are influenza antiviral drugs that can be used to treat flu illness, but they need to be started within 24 to 48 hours after your start getting ill, and they typically only reduce the numbers of days you will be ill by one day.

Where can I get the flu shot?

There is plenty of vaccine available in the state; however there are some spot shortages so you may need to call around. Many doctors’ offices, pharmacies and local public health authorities carry the flu vaccine.

Are vaccinated people getting influenza?

The influenza vaccine is primarily used to prevent serious illness (hospitalizations and death) and is 60% to 80% effective. We do NOT expect everyone who is vaccinated to NEVER have any flu infections/flu symptoms (as is sometimes expected by the public).

Young healthy people may have about 90% protection against infection/symptoms and close to 100% protection from death. People who are elderly, sick or have never been vaccinated in previous years may have around 40-60% protection from symptoms and 70-80% protection from death. (NOTE: These are all rough estimates).

Bottom Line: The flu vaccine is the best tool we have to prevent the flu. We do expect some people who have been vaccinated to get the flu and have some symptoms, but we do not expect many to have serious or life threatening problems.

Is the “stomach flu” really the flu?

No. The real flu is a respiratory disease (though some people, particularly children may have a little diarrhea or vomiting on top of the runny nose, fever, cough etc they get with the flu). If you have vomiting, diarrhea and nausea it is usually a virus called norovirus. The flu shot will not protect you against this virus.

How long should I stay home if I am sick?

You stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever and other severe symptoms are gone (without the use of fever-reducing medications).

5 steps to take if you get the flu:

1) Stay at home and rest

2) Avoid close contact with other people

3) Drink plenty of water and clear liquids

4) Treat symptoms like fever and cough with medicines you buy at the store

5) If you have a high fever, a bad cough, get dehydrated or any serious symptoms, or if you are at high risk of complications like pneumonia, call your doctor. You may need antiviral drugs to treat the flu.

What are influenza antiviral drugs?

Influenza antiviral drugs are prescription medicines (pills, liquid, or an inhaler) that fight against the flu by keeping flu viruses from reproducing in your body. Antiviral drugs can make your illness milder and make you feel better faster. They may also prevent serious flu complications. This could be especially important for people at high risk.

How are antiviral medications used for the flu?

While getting a flu vaccine each year is the best way to protect you form the flu, antiviral drugs can be used as a second line of defense to treat the flu or to prevent flu infection. For treatment, antiviral drugs work best if started soon after getting sick (within 2 days of symptoms). When used this way, these drugs can reduce the severity of flu symptoms and shorten the time you are sick by 1 or 2 days. They also may make you less contagious to other people.

What should I do if I get sick?

Most healthy people recover from the flu without complications. If you get the flu:

Stay home

  • Get lots of rest, drink plenty of liquids, and avoid using alcohol and tobacco
  • There are over-the-counter (OTC) medications to relieve the symptoms of the flu (but never give aspirin to children or teenagers who have flu-like symptom, particularly fever)
  • Remember that serious illness from the flu is more likely in certain groups of people including people 65 and older, pregnant women, people with certain chronic medical conditions and young children
  • Consult your doctor early for the best treatment, but also be aware of emergency warning signs that require urgent medical attention

What are emergency warning signs?

In children, emergency warning signs that need urgent medical attention include:

  • Fast breathing or trouble breathing
  • Bluish skin color
  • Not drinking enough fluids
  • Not waking up or not interacting
  • Being so irritable that the child does not want to be held
  • Flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough
  • Fever with a rash

In adults, emergency warning signs that need urgent medical attention include:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
  • Sudden dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Severe or persistent vomiting

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