Preventing the Flu
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What is influenza?
Influenza (also called “the flu”) is a viral infection in the nose, throat and lungs. It is estimated that influenza causes approximately 12,200 hospitalizations and 3,500 deaths in Canada each year.
The flu may cause fever, cough, sore throat, a runny or stuffy nose, headache, muscle aches and tiredness. Most people feel better after 1 or 2 weeks, but for some people, the flu leads to serious diseases, such as pneumonia. The influenza vaccine can help protect you from getting the flu.
Who is at higher risk?
The following people have a higher risk of flu complications:
- All pregnant women
- Residents of nursing homes and other chronic care facilities
- People 65 years of age and older
- All children younger than 5 years of age
- Indigenous peoples
- People with chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, asthma, and diabetes
What is H1N1 flu?
The H1N1 influenza (also called swine influenza or swine flu) is a respiratory infection caused by a virus found in pigs. H1N1 flu can infect humans. For more information, visit our H1N1 Influenza handout.
How can I avoid getting the flu?
The best way to avoid getting the flu is to get the influenza vaccine. You should get the vaccine as soon as it becomes available each fall, but you can also get it any time throughout the flu season (into December, January and beyond). The vaccines work by exposing your immune system to the flu virus. Your body will build up antibodies to the virus to protect you from getting the flu. The flu shot contains dead viruses. You cannot get the flu from the flu shot.
You can also reduce your risk of catching the flu by washing your hands frequently, which stops the spread of germs. Eating healthy, exercising and getting enough sleep also play a part in preventing the flu because they help boost your immune system.
If you are sick, make sure that you cover your mouth when you cough and wash your hands often to prevent giving the flu to others.
Some people who get the vaccine will still get the flu, but they may get a milder case than people who aren’t vaccinated. The vaccine is especially recommended for people who are more likely to get really sick from flu-related complications.
Should I get the flu vaccine?
Yes. All persons who are 6 months of age or older should get the flu vaccine as long as there are no contraindications.
Is there anyone who shouldn’t get the flu shot?
Yes. The following people should contact their healthcare provider before getting the flu shot:
- People who have had an allergic reaction to a flu shot in the past
- People who previously developed Guillain-Barré Syndrome (a reversible reaction that causes partial or complete loss of movement of muscles, weakness or a tingling sensation in the body) within 6 weeks of getting a flu shot
- Children younger than 6 months of age
- People who have a moderate or severe illness with a fever should wait until they feel better before receiving the flu shot
If I get the flu vaccine, can I still get the flu?
Yes. Even with a flu vaccine, you aren’t 100% protected. Each year, the flu vaccine contains 3 different strains (kinds) of the virus. The strains chosen are those that scientists believe are most likely to show up in Canada that year. If the choice is right, the vaccine can be as much as 70% to 90% effective in preventing the flu in healthy adults. Even if you get the flu after being vaccinated, your flu symptoms can be milder than if you didn’t get the vaccine. You’ll also reduce your risk of complications from the flu.
A note about vaccines
Sometimes the amount of a certain vaccine cannot keep up with the number of people who need it. More information is available at https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/vaccine-supply.html
Is the vaccine safe?
Yes. The flu vaccine is safe. There are very few side effects. If you got the flu shot, your arm may be sore for a few days. You may have a fever, feel tired or have sore muscles for a short time.
Can I get the flu vaccine if I am pregnant or nursing?
It is recommended that women who will be pregnant during flu season get the shot. Pregnancy can increase your risk for complications from the flu.
It is also safe to get the flu shot while breastfeeding your baby. The flu shot cannot cause you or your nursing baby to get sick.
What are antiviral flu drugs?
Antiviral flu drugs are prescription medicines that can be used to help prevent and/or treat the flu. There are antivirals drugs, including oseltamivir, zanamivir and peramivir, authorized for influenza treatment and/or prophylaxis in Canada. If you take one of these drugs within 2 days of getting sick, it can lessen your symptoms, decrease the amount of time you are sick and make you less contagious to other people. However, most healthy people who have the flu get better without using an antiviral flu drug. Your healthcare provider will decide whether one of these medicines is right for you.
Some of the antiviral flu drugs have also been approved to prevent the flu. These drugs are not a substitute for the influenza vaccine. They are most often used for flu prevention in institutions where people at high risk for flu complications are in close contact with each other, such as nursing homes or hospitals. For example, during a flu outbreak in a nursing home, residents and staff might be given the flu vaccine and an antiviral drug to prevent the flu until the vaccine takes effect.
Where can I learn more about the flu vaccine?
For more information, you can visit the Health Canada Website: https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/diseases/flu-influenza.html
Lowering the Age for Routine Influenza Vaccination to 50 Years: AAFP Leads the Nation in Influenza Vaccine Policy by RK Zimmerman, M.D., M.P.H. (11/01/99, http://www.aafp.org/afp/991101ap/2061.html)