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Epidemiologist Answers Flu Season FAQs

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Last year about 80,000 people in the United States died from the flu. Department of Health epidemiologist Jennifer Roth explained that the flu season begins in October and runs until May. She shared some insight about the virus and how to prevent it with WGCU's Andrea Perdomo.

Perdomo: What is the flu? How is it different than the common cold?

Roth: Flu is more of kinda an all body  experience. You have a fever for the most part, chills, aches. People say ‘well I feel like I was hit by a truck.’ That all body experience is going to distinguish the respiratory symptoms with flu versus respiratory symptoms associated with a cold.

Perdomo: So, how does the flu shot work?

Roth: When you get the flu shot your immune system basically feels out the shape of the virus and that’s how it makes antibodies. And your antibodies recognize that and learn that that is what the flu is and so it can protect you in the future.    

Perdomo: Do people really need the vaccine? Can’t they just stay home when they feel sick to prevent spreading it to others?

Roth: Its important to also to realize that you can be infectious even before you start showing symptoms so even a day or two before you really start feeling sick,  you can still spread it if you’re infected and then you can go to school you can go to work you could visit your elderly parents in a nursing home you can go to the hospital and you could infect other people without even realizing it.

Perdomo: How often should people get the flu shot?

Roth: So that’s why we always say you need an annual flu shot. The flu strains that were circulating last year have already completely changed into new strains this year that your immune system probably won’t recognize and because it takes two weeks to develop full immunity, we really recommend that people get it now before the end of October so that way when true flu season starts to hit later on this year then you’re already protected.

Perdomo: Why do people sometimes get the flu -- or flu-like symptoms -- after getting the vaccine?

Roth: At any one time, dozens of strains of flu can be circulating in the community. The CDC tries to do their best job at guessing which top three or four are going to be circulating but sometimes they don’t always get it right and sometimes you might just get one of the rarer strains.

Perdomo: Does that mean there’s no benefit for people who get sick after getting the shot?

Roth: The good thing is even if you still  get the flu after getting the flu shot there’s been a lot of studies that show the flu shot provides cross protection it may not prevent you from getting sick , but its good enough immunity to prevent you from more serious complications like hospitalization or even death.

Perdomo: Should some people be more worried about catching the flu?

Roth: Typically think of infants, and people over the age of 65 their immune systems aren’t very great. People that don’t have good immune systems so that would include pregnant women or anybody with a chronic disease like diabetes. Those people are at high risk for getting complications and by complications I mean pneumonia, hospitalization and death.

Perdomo: At what point should someone consider seeing a doctor?

Roth: If you have a fever lasting more than 24 hours, its probably good to seek medical attention for children, pregnant women and the elderly. Basically  If your child is not acting normally, they can’t really get off the couch they’re very lethargic especially in babies that can’t really speak if you notice they are feverish and that fever is not going away, I would definitely recommend taking them.  

Perdomo: With so many strains of flu out there, are all flu shots the same?

Roth: There are different manufacturers but the actual formulation of what strains are in it is standard throughout the United States. So the flu shot you get at CVS or Walgreens would be the same that you would get at the health department it would be the same that you would get at your private doctor.

During the month of October, Walgreens and Florida Blue will be giving the flu shot for free at participating locations on Thursdays from 10 a.m. to noon, regardless of health insurance coverage. 

Copyright 2020 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.

Andrea Perdomo is a reporter for WGCU News. She started her career in public radio as an intern for the Miami-based NPR station, WLRN. Andrea graduated from Florida International University, where she was a contributing writer for the student-run newspaper, The Panther Press, and also a member of the university's Society of Professional Journalists chapter.