Facts About the Flu

The seasonal influenza virus (H3N2) is making media headlines, and as more is learned about the illness, misinformation can cause confusion and uncertainty. The Infectious Diseases Working Group at Columbia is here to help you get the facts.

While the 2018 seasonal flu is spiking across the United States and New York City, here at Columbia University the number of cases reported to student health services are not as high, in part because Columbia University and Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) faculty, staff and students understand the importance of vaccination to protect not only themselves but the wider community. In fall 2017, Columbia Health provided a record 8,364 flu shots to faculty, staff and students. CUMC administered 2,578 flu shots to students, and many other faculty, staff and students received vaccination elsewhere.

Get the Answers: Common Questions About the Flu

Influenza is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. It is mostly spread by droplets, when infected people cough or sneeze, or by hand-to-hand contact with someone infected who has coughed or sneezed into their hand.

The flu can be a severe and sometimes life-threatening disease. Seasonal influenza is associated with almost 36,000 deaths and more than 200,000 hospital visits in the U.S. each year.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most people who get the flu will have mild illness, will not need medical care or antiviral drugs, and will recover in less than two weeks. Some people, however, are more likely to get flu complications that can result in hospitalization and sometimes death. Pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus infections and ear infections are examples of flu-related complications. The flu also can make chronic health problems worse. For example, people with asthma may experience asthma attacks while they have the flu, and people with chronic congestive heart failure may experience a worsening of this condition triggered by flu.

People who have the flu often feel some or all of these signs and symptoms that usually start suddenly, not gradually:

  • Fever* or feeling feverish/chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue (very tired)
  • Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in young children than in adults.

*It’s important to note that not everyone with flu will have a fever.

Source: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/keyfacts.htm

Even in years when the seasonal vaccine is less effective, getting a flu shot still helps your body “recognize” the virus and produce antibodies that will help you fight influenza and reduce the severity of the illness. For most people, getting a flu shot either prevents the flu entirely or makes the difference between a mild illness that means they need to stay home for a few days, or a severe illness that means they need to be hospitalized or are even at risk of death.

Getting a flu shot also lowers your chances of passing the flu to others, helping to protect high-risk populations like children, pregnant women, seniors, and people with chronic lung diseases or compromised immune systems.

The flu vaccine is made from an inactivated virus, so a person cannot get the flu from a shot.

Some people may experience soreness at the vaccination spot, and in a few cases, may develop fever, muscle aches, or feel unwell for a day or two. In very rare cases when a person is allergic to the vaccine, there may be an immediate reaction.

If you have a chronic medical condition, are pregnant, or are over 65, seek medical attention as soon as possible. If you have young children under the age of 5 who show flu-like symptoms, seek similar medical attention. Learn more about high-risk people at the CDC website.

Students who experience flu-like symptoms and need advice can contact student health services. At Morningside, call Columbia Health at 212-854-2284, or at the Medical Center, call the Student Health Service at (212) 305-3400.

Faculty and staff should contact your physician.

If you do become ill, limit your contact with others to keep from exposing them:

  • Remain in your residence hall or at home for at least 24 hours after you no longer have fever (without the use of medications that reduce fever, like Motrin or Tylenol). It is important to note that students should contact their Advising Dean, if class needs to be missed due to severe illness.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue or your elbow when coughing or sneezing, and discard used tissues immediately.
  • Try to avoid casually touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
  • Continue to wash your hands regularly.

Get the Facts: Dispelling Common Myths

Myth: It's common to catch the flu from things like door handles, toilet seats and keyboards.

Get the Facts: Not so, but you can do simple things like washing hands regularly and covering coughs or sneezes to help prevent infection of the flu.

Myth: I can catch the flu from going outdoors in the cold weather.

Get the Facts: Not true. In fact, the flu is more common in the winter months because that is when the virus spreads across the country. It has very little to do with being outside in the cold weather.

Myth: "Feed a cold and starve a fever (flu)."

Get the Facts: This is definitely not a good idea in either case. More fluids than usual are needed when someone has the flu or a cold. It is recommended to drink plenty of water and juice, eat enough food to satisfy an appetite, and drink hot fluids to ease a cough and sore throat.

Myth: If I have the flu, taking antibiotics will help me get well faster.

Get the Facts: Antibiotics are not the answer to fast recovery when it comes to the flu. Antibiotics can cure most bacterial infections; however, viral infections, such as the flu, cannot be cured with antibiotics.

The best way to limit flu infection is by getting a vaccine. Other preventive measures, such as covering coughs or sneezes and washing your hands, can also help prevent illness.

In some flu cases, physicians may prescribe antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu. These drugs are different from antibiotics and should be taken exactly as prescribed.

Myth: Wearing a facemask or respirator can reduce my chance of flu infection.

Get the Facts: There is little evidence that demonstrates the effectiveness for most people of wearing facemasks and respirators to prevent getting the flu.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is beneficial to use a facemask or respirator when consistently exposed to a severely ill person, such as a primary caregiver who is at high risk for complications and is caring for someone with the flu. It is also recommended that a sick person, who can tolerate wearing a mask, do so around others to help decrease the spread of the illness.