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Remain vigilant against the flu

Flu activity usually peaks in January, February or March

Young girl using hand gel © iStockphoto
While the flu typically gets lots of media attention in the fall thanks to the introduction of seasonal vaccines, flu activity itself usually peaks in January, February or March. Vaccination, handwashing and other prevention behaviors remain especially important.

Posted March 2, 2011

By Tan Nguyen, M.D.

Despite the recent warm spell and other early signs of spring, it’s important to remain vigilant about influenza prevention.

While the infectious disease typically gets lots of media attention in the fall thanks to the introduction of seasonal vaccines, flu activity itself usually peaks in January, February or March.

And as of mid-February, the California Department of Public Health reports that overall influenza activity is on the increase. Cases are now present in both Southern California and Northern California.

To help keep from falling victim, pay attention to prevention behaviors such as handwashing and covering coughs and sneezes. And if you haven’t been already, consider getting vaccinated.

Dr. Nguyen is a UC Davis family physician practicing at UC Davis Medical Group's new Natomas primary care office.

Why you should care

The flu, or influenza, is a viral illness that causes fevers, chills, sweats, headache, and muscle aches.  It can also lead to fatigue, a painful cough, sore throat, and sinus and chest congestion. 

While influenza symptoms can last from several days to a couple of weeks, most people start to gradually get better after two or three days. However, in some high-risk groups of people (listed in more detail later in this article), severe symptoms can develop. 

High-risk groups

These groups are at high risk for developing flu-related complications, according to the CDC:

  • Children younger than 5, but especially younger than 2 years old.
  • Adults 65 years of age and older.
  • Pregnant women.
  • American Indians and Alaskan Natives.
  • People who have existing medical conditions, including:
  • Asthma
  • Neurological and neurodevelopmental conditions (including disorders of the brain, spinal cord, peripheral nerve, and muscle such as cerebral palsy; epilepsy/seizure disorders; stroke, intellectual disability; moderate to severe developmental delay; muscular dystrophy; or spinal cord injury).
  • Chronic lung disease (such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease/COPD or cystic fibrosis).
  • Heart disease (such as congenital heart disease, congestive heart failure and coronary artery disease).
  • Blood disorders (such as sickle cell disease).
  • Endocrine disorders (such as diabetes mellitus).
  • Kidney disorders.

Getting the flu can mean:

  • Feeling miserable.

  • Lost productivity in terms of days off from work or school.

  • Putting loved ones at risk from getting your flu.

  • Possible serious complications, including pneumonia, bronchitis or a worsening of existing heart disease or diabetes. Flu-related illnesses have been listed as the eighth-leading cause of death in America, based on 2007 data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control or CDC).

Prevention

The peak season for the flu is from early fall to winter. Recommendations for preventing the flu are easy to follow —and can make all the difference in staying healthy now and throughout the year:

  • Get a flu vaccination. According to the CDC, this is the single best way to prevent the flu. The CDC recommends that this season, everyone 6 months and older should get vaccinated.

  • Annual vaccination is especially important for people at high risk of having serious flu-related complications, CDC officials say, or people who live with or care for high-risk individuals.

  • Wash your hands. Use soap and water often, especially after coughing or sneezing. Carry alcohol-based hand cleaners in your car, backpack or purse when soap and water are not available.

  • Keep your distance. Avoid close contact with people who are sick. If you're ill, stay home. You can help prevent others from getting sick.

  • Cover your cough. Use a tissue when coughing or sneezing. It can prevent the spread of germs. If you don't have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your upper arm or elbow.  Sneezing and coughing into your hand puts the virus in an excellent spot for further spreading of the virus.

  • Don't contaminate. Try not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs are often spread this way, which is why hand washing is so important.

  • Maintain good health. Get plenty of sleep. Drink lots of water and eat nutritious foods. Get regular exercise. Manage stress. Being healthy improves your immunity and helps fight the flu.

People who should not get the vaccine:

  • Have severe allergy to chicken eggs.
  • Had severe reaction to flu vaccination in the past.
  • Developed Guillian-Barré syndrome within six weeks of getting flu vaccine previously.
  • Children younger than 6 months.
  • Currently have a moderate or severe illness with a fever.

The vaccine

The flu vaccine comes in two forms:

  • The shot. This is an inactivated vaccine, containing dead virus and is safe for people over 6 months of age, including pregnant women. Side effects can include soreness, redness and swelling of the injection site; low grade fever; and muscle aches.

  • The nasal spray. This is a live virus (not the flu virus), that has altered to spark immunity to the flu, without causing illness.  This is for healthy people from 2-49 years old, excluding pregnant women. Side effects can include runny nose, headache, sore throat and cough.

Also, this year's vaccine, includes two of the seasonal flu strains, plus the H1N1 (aka "swine flu") in one dose.  Although the H1N1 pandemic ended in August of this year, it can still lead to illness.  Moreover, getting a second dose of the H1N1 vaccine is safe, even if you were previously vaccinated.

And contrary to what some may strongly believe, the flu vaccine DOES NOT give you the flu.  Wouldn’t that defeat the whole purpose? 

Treatment

Treatment of the flu is mainly directed at alleviating symptoms. 

  • Fever, aches and pains can largely be treated by over-the-counter acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

  • Cough can be alleviated with cough medication and sometimes even a teaspoon of honey (but only for those older than 1 year).

  • Fatigue can be relieved with rest and fluids.

  • Sinus and nasal congestion may benefit from antihistamines and decongestants.

Contrary to what some may strongly believe, the flu vaccine DOES NOT give you the flu. Wouldn’t that defeat the whole purpose?

And remember — the flu is a viral infection, not a bacterial one; so antibiotics will not help this go away any faster than your own immune system!

More resources:

Centers for Disease Control

UC Davis Health System flu page and vaccination info