Professors stress flu shot importance, debunk misconceptions
With flu season approaching, Rutgers infectious disease experts encourage students to get vaccinated sooner rather than later.
New Jersey Medical School (NJMS) Assistant Professor of Medicine-Pediatrics Infectious Disease David Cennimo said that flu season is a time period of increased flu activity in a given area.
“In the Northern Hemisphere, it is fall to winter, October to March. Influenza viruses circulate all over the world but tend to hit a given area over a shorter period of time,” he said. “The flu does tend to peak later in the winter in New Jersey than say California, for instance, reflecting the usual west-to-east spread.”
The flu, short for influenza, is more life-threatening than the common cold despite the fact that they have similar symptoms, Cennimo said.
“I generally tell people who confuse flu and the common cold that they have never had influenza. Influenza is much more likely to cause severe and life-threatening illness, people are more likely to have fever and have a sudden onset. The common cold is actually caused by myriad viruses. The symptoms are what you know: nasal congestion, sneeze, scratchy throat, etc.,” he said.
College students are particularly vulnerable to getting the flu because of their environment. They also have to deal with more than just symptoms of the flu, Cennimo said.
“Colleges are a great place to spread influenza. You live and work in close contact with many others. I think you should be worried about catching flu because you can miss significant time, infect others and be generally miserable,” he said. “While most college-aged students are healthy, some will have risks for severe flu. Also, even previously 'healthy’ people have fallen very ill with influenza and died.”
Robert Wood Johnson infectious disease specialist Dr. Tanaya Bhowmick said, according to a recent press release, that there is a high risk of infecting individuals with weak immune systems.
“Some people can be infected with the flu virus but have no symptoms. During this time, those people may still spread the virus to others, especially vulnerable populations like the elderly, children and those who have an impaired immune system, such as cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and people with HIV or pulmonary disease,” she said.
To survive this year’s flu season, Cennimo said that students should get their flu shot, despite the common misconception that the shot will make them sick.
“All injectable flu vaccines do not contain live virus. There is nothing in there that can give you an infection. Many people do have mild reactions after the vaccine that is indicative of your immune system reacting and building memory to fight the virus. It is true that you may feel tired/achey for a day, but this is not an active infection and much better than being sick for over one week with flu,” he said.
Bhowmick said that the vaccine takes approximately two weeks to work and individuals can still contract the flu during that period.
“The vaccine exposes your body to a weakened form of the virus, which allows you to mount an immune response. So, essentially you are getting a ‘mini flu’ illness, which is why people may feel ill after getting the vaccine,” she said.
In addition to getting vaccinated, Cennimo said students should practice good hand hygiene, cover their coughs and stay home if they are sick in order to stay healthy this flu season.
The flu vaccine also changes every season, so students should get it every year, Cennimo said.
“It would be great to have a universal flu vaccine. At present, we need to have a new vaccine every year because the virus constantly mutates. The drifting of the viral surface proteins (change over time) means that last year's vaccine may not work. The (World Health Organization) WHO tried to predict the viruses that will circulate this season and chose to put these in the vaccine,” he said.
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