The symptoms come on fast and strong: muscle aches and pain, fever, headaches and exhaustion. The flu can knock you out for weeks – and that’s if you’re a healthy young adult.
For the young, the old and those with weak immune systems, the risks of complications, such as pneumonia, are much higher. The best way to protect yourself is to get vaccinated – soon.
This year’s vaccine is the same as last year’s, but you still need a fresh one this season. If you get it now, it should protect you through April, when the virus subsides. The vaccine prevents the illness up to 80 percent of the time in adults younger than 60 and about half of the time in those 65 and older. If you get sick after being vaccinated, you usually contract a milder case.
Consumer Reports offers these five ways to combat the flu:
1. Consider the new “quadrivalent” shot. The standard shot, called the trivalent, protects against three of the most common flu strains from last year: two influenza A (H1N1 and H3N2) viruses, and one influenza B virus.
The quadrivalent version, which came out last year, protects against those plus another influenza B virus. The B strains are the ones most active at the end of the flu season, in February and March. Manufacturers are making more of the quadrivalent vaccine this year, so you should be able to get it at your doctor’s office or a local pharmacy.
2. Don’t rush to get the high-dose vaccine. This vaccine, called Fluzone High-Dose, has four times the standard shot’s flu-antigen dose. And a manufacturer-supported study in the Aug. 14 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine found that it was slightly more likely than the standard vaccine to prevent the flu in people 65 and up.
But the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that the high-dose version might be more likely to cause side effects, including headache, muscle aches and fever. So Consumer Reports’ medical experts say older people should weigh the possible risks and benefits of the vaccine when deciding which shot to choose.
3. Get the nasal spray for kids. This vaccine, called FluMist, will protect children ages 2 through 8 better than the regular shot, the CDC says in a new-for-this-season recommendation. The downside: A second dose may be necessary a month later.
4. Don’t wait to take anti-viral drugs if you’re at high risk. The drugs oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza) can ease flu symptoms, reduce complications and cut the chance of spreading the disease – if you start taking one within 48 hours of getting sick. But a CDC study out in July found that only about 1 in 5 high-risk patients got the drugs.
“If you have symptoms and are in a high-risk group, ask your doctor for anti-viral drugs,” says the CDC’s Dr. Fiona Havers, one of the authors of the study. “Don’t wait three or four days.”
You’re at high risk if you are 65 or older; are pregnant or delivered a baby within two weeks; have a chronic disease such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease; have a suppressed immune system; are obese; or live in a nursing home or other chronic-care facility.
5. Just say no to antibiotics for flu. The drugs work only against bacteria – and the flu is caused by a virus. Yet the same CDC study found that doctors gave antibiotics to 30 percent of people with the flu. Using those drugs when you don’t need them can make them less effective when they are necessary and increases the risk of hard-to-treat bacterial infections such as Clostridium difficile.
Instead, go for the tried-and-true: plenty of sleep and fluids, and over-the-counter drugs. Acetaminophen (Tylenol and generic), ibuprofen (Advil and generic) and naproxen (Aleve and generic) reduce fever and headache.