Flu news you can use: 2017-18 edition

Find out when and where to get your flu shot, whether it works and what else you can do to stay healthy this winter.

It may still be fall here in Seattle, but Pacific Northwesterners know all too well what lies ahead.

It's cold, it's wet, it's dreary, it’s … winter. And that means days, weeks, even months of being cooped up indoors and sharing airspace at work and in school.

But guess who just loves winter? The Flu, that's who!

Tis the season — for flu!  

Don't delay. Book your flu shot appointment today by calling 206.520.5000.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the 2015-16 flu season saw 25 million flu-related illnesses, 11 million medical visits, 310,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 deaths.

While people of all ages are susceptible to the flu, hospitalizations and deaths most typically occur in the 65 and older and 5 and under age groups, as well as people who are at elevated risk of having flu-related complications, like pregnant women.

Getting a flu shot (rather than a nasal spray, as they’re not as effective) is your best protection against influenza. As flu epidemics in the U.S. peak between late November and March, it’s a good idea to get vaccinated in late fall since it takes your body up to two weeks to form the antibodies that protect you.

For other insight into keeping this nasty bug at bay this season, we enlisted Dr. Christopher Sanford, UW Medicine family medicine doctor and UW associate professor of global health. Here’s what we learned.

DON'T TOUCH YOUR FACE

The flu is primarily transmitted by respiratory droplets (people with influenza expel the virus up to 6 feet by breathing, speaking, coughing and sneezing) and by inanimate things like doorknobs and money. You touch the infected thing, you touch your eye, nose or lips, you become infected.One study that filmed people sitting at a desk found that they touched their faces an average of 16 times per hour: about eight times on the lips, a finger in a nostril about five times, eye rubs about twice.

WHY, WINTER, WHY?

Believe it or not, it’s unknown why flu is most prevalent in winter. It has been speculated that people are indoors more and that crowding facilitates spread, but in cities we’re likely not more crowded in winter than summer. It’s also been hypothesized that cold air causes the mucus lining in our noses to dry and crack, allowing for viral infections of our mucus membrane.

SO A FLU SHOT PROTECTS ME FROM THE FLU, RIGHT?

Well, yes. And no. Flu vaccines are reformulated each year to provide the broadest coverage possible, but the CDC’s assessment of many of the past seasons' vaccines revealed an efficacy of about 50 percent. The virus mutates, new strains materialize, you don’t have protection from past infections and immunity decreases over time. If you’ve had a flu shot and subsequently develop flu-like illness, you may have influenza, or you may have an unrelated cold. If it’s flu, it will probably be a milder case than it would have been had you not had the vaccine. The vaccine itself does not contain any live organism, however, so it cannot give you a cold or the flu, nor does it weaken your immune system.

ARE ANTIVIRAL MEDICATIONS EFFECTIVE?

About 70-90 percent, yes. So why doesn’t everyone just go onto antiviral medications for the duration of the flu season? Cost, potential side effects, limited availability, increased development of drug resistance, and the difficulty of distinguishing between flu and a severe cold. Prescription antiviral drugs like Tamiflu and Relenza can shorten the duration of symptoms by an average of about one day if taken within the first 48 hours of symptoms, though.

WHAT ELSE CAN I DO?

Washing hands with ordinary soap reduces the transmission of respiratory viruses, and it does so better than alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Dr. Sanford notes that masks are useful for concealing your identity if you are a superhero or a bank robber, but their benefit in reducing your risk of colds and flu is less clear. The flu shot is an inexpensive, low-side effect vaccination for a common, serious — sometimes life-threatening— illness. Its benefits outweigh its risks.

Come see us to get your flu shot today. Find a clinic near you.

Walk-in clinic dates and locations

Harborview Medical Center

Available now - ongoing | 8:30 a.m.-11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. - 4 p.m. | UW Medical Center - Roosevelt | 3rd Floor: General Internal Medicine Center

*Walk-ins are first-come, first-served. Patients must be 18 or older and an existing UW Medicine patient.

Can't make it to a walk-in visit? Call 206.520.5000 to schedule your appointment today. Vaccines will soon be stocked at most UW Medicine locations, but please call your clinic to check availability.

See how much you know about the flu by taking this quiz. Take the quiz

Dr. Christopher Sanford’s new book, The Global Traveler's Guide to Health, will be published by UW Press in 2018.