You’ve seen the warning signs. It might start with a sore throat or a runny nose. You may notice you’re unusually hot or cold or both at the same time. All of a sudden, your muscles ache, you spike a fever and are too exhausted to stand up. It then hits you like a viral freight train: the flu.
Influenza, or more commonly “the flu,” is a very specific contagious disease caused by the influenza virus. And while we’re susceptible to the flu anytime of the year, most cases typically occur between the months of September and May. The biggest difference between the flu and other viruses like the common cold is that the flu virus makes you feel significantly worse.
“The flu goes around from person to person and can cause cough and congestion; but more so, it can make you have a fever, feel weak, have muscle aches—it just really makes you feel miserable,” said Dr. Ankoor Shah, director of policy and programs at the D.C. Department of Health.
WTOP recently spoke with Shah about the flu and how to prevent spreading it.
“The flu is a virus that occurs around this time of year … but bottom line, it makes you really sick, it can make your loved ones really sick, and it can be preventable for most of us by a simple thing called the flu shot,” said Shah.
The seasonal flu vaccine offered at doctors’ offices, pharmacies and workplaces allows the body to create antibodies that provide protection against infection by the same viruses that are used to make the vaccine in the first place. The flu vaccine is the best way to protect against the flu, and it’s the easiest way to keep the most vulnerable in the community safe. In fact, it could mean the difference between life or death.
“The people I’m really concerned about—that we all should be concerned about during flu season—is young children, anyone with chronic medical conditions, and our seniors,” said Shah. “These specific populations and groups of people get even sicker, require hospitalization and sometimes, across the country, some folks in these groups even die.”
He emphasized that the flu shot is both safe and effective.
“The best tool in our tool belt is the flu shot,” he said. “The flu shot is safe, it’s effective, it can prevent us from getting the flu, but it doesn’t stop only there. It helps prevent our loved ones from getting sick. By us getting the flu shot, we can help stop spreading the flu to our nieces, our nephews or kids or grandparents—everyone in our community. By getting the flu shot, we are helping everyone around us.”
Shah also feels that D.C. specifically has a community advantage because, like a family, people look out for one another.
“What’s really unique about D.C., I think everyone that lives here think of ourselves as a community,” he said. “We take care of each other, and I can’t think of a better way to take care of each other this season than to get your flu shot.”
There are also many misconceptions surrounding the flu shot, one of the biggest being that the flu shot gives you the flu. Shah said this is a false assumption.
“This is 100% not true,” he said. “The flu shot will not give you the flu. What usually happens is that you get the flu shot and, we are in the time of year when we are all getting colds. There is something different between your regular, common cold and the flu, and sometimes you just catch a cold during the same time because it’s that time of year. A lot of people construe the shot with the common cold as a connection.”
If you think you may have the flu or are experiencing flu-like symptoms such as fever, muscle ache, weakness, cold or congestion, the best thing you can do is see a medical professional.
“Whenever in doubt, go see your primary care doctor,” Shah said. “Any sort of concern or question, really think about the medical home where you get all your medical information and care.”
For more information about the flu and how to protect yourself and your loved ones, visit DCHealth.dc.gov/flu.wtop.