In the Spotlight

Flu facts for veterans, their families, and VA employees and volunteers

Seasonal influenza can cause a week or more of illness that can keep a person home in bed, send him or her to the hospital or worse. Seasonal flu is highly preventable through annual vaccination. The Department of Veterans Affairs makes flu vaccination a priority each year in both veterans and the staff that takes care of them.

Influenza, also known as the flu, is a contagious disease that is caused by an influenza virus. It attacks the respiratory tract (nose, throat, and lungs). The flu is different from a cold. Influenza commonly occurs every year. It is called seasonal influenza and a vaccine is produced each year to prevent it. Influenza usually comes on suddenly and may include these symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Tiredness (can be extreme)
  • Dry cough, can be severe and long-lasting
  • Sore throat
  • Nasal congestion
  • Body aches

These symptoms are usually referred to as "flu-like symptoms."

How the Flu Virus is Spread

The main way that influenza viruses are spread is from person to person in respiratory droplets of coughs and sneezes. (This is called "droplet spread.") This can happen when droplets (made when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or speaks) are propelled (generally up to 3 feet) through the air and deposited on the mouth or nose or inhaled by people nearby. The viruses also can be spread when a person touches respiratory droplets on another person or an object and then touches their own mouth or nose (or someone else's mouth or nose) before washing their hands.

Preventing the Flu

The single best way to protect against the flu is to get vaccinated each year. If you are vaccinated, you are much less likely to get sick from flu and pass it on to others.

There are two types of vaccines:

  • The "flu shot" - an inactivated vaccine (containing killed virus) that is given with a needle, usually in the arm. The flu shot is approved for use in children older than 6 months and in adults, including healthy people and people with chronic medical conditions.
  • The nasal-spray flu vaccine - a vaccine made with live, weakened flu viruses that do not cause the flu (sometimes called LAIV for "Live Attenuated Influenza Vaccine"). LAIV is approved for use in healthy people 5 years to 49 years of age who are not pregnant.

The exact variation of influenza viruses in the vaccine change each year based on international surveillance and scientists' estimations about which types and strains of viruses will circulate in a given year.

About 2 weeks after vaccination, antibodies that provide protection against influenza virus infection develop in the body. While October and November are good times to get flu vaccination, vaccination later in the season - from December through early spring - can be effective too.

Veterans enrolled in VA health care are eligible to get a flu vaccination at their nearest VA medical center. VA employees and volunteers can also get a flu vaccination from VA. Other sources of flu vaccination include private doctors' offices, public health departments and clinics, and flu vaccination clinics offered by medical centers and other locations in your community. October/November is a good time, but vaccination in December and in the first few months of the year can also be beneficial.

Other Ways to Prevent the Flu from Spreading

There are other important steps to preventing flu and its transmission:

  • Wash your hands - Use antibacterial soap and warm water or an alcohol hand rub before you eat, after you use the restroom, after you cough or sneeze, after you touch an ill person, after you touch a pet.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes - Use a tissue or your sleeve if necessary. Do not cough into your hands.
  • Stay home if you are sick and encourage others to do so.
  • Keep your distance from others who are ill with flu if you can.

Who Should Get Vaccinated?

In general, anyone who wants to reduce their chances of getting the flu can get vaccinated. However, certain people should get vaccinated each year either because they are at high risk of having serious flu-related complications or because they live with or care for high risk persons.

People who should get vaccinated each year are:

  1. People at high risk for complications from the flu, including:
  • Children aged 6 months until their 5th birthday,
  • Pregnant women,
  • People 50 years of age and older,
  • People of any age with certain chronic medical conditions, and
  • People who live in nursing homes and other long term care facilities.
  1. People who live with or care for those at high risk for complications from flu, including:
  • Household contacts of persons at high risk for complications from the flu (see above)
  • Household contacts and out of home caregivers of children less than 6 months of age (these children are too young to be vaccinated)
  • Health care workers.
  1. Anyone who wants to decrease their risk of influenza.

In general, anyone who wants to reduce their chances of getting the flu can get vaccinated. However, certain people should get vaccinated each year either because they are at high risk of having serious flu-related complications or because they live with or care for high risk persons.

Who Should Not Be Vaccinated

Some people should not be vaccinated without first consulting a physician. They include:

  • People who have a severe allergy to chicken eggs.
  • People who have had a severe reaction to an influenza vaccination in the past.
  • People who developed the neurological Guillain-Barre' syndrome (GBS) within 6 weeks of getting an influenza vaccine previously.
  • Children less than 6 months of age (influenza vaccine is not approved for use in this age group).
  • People who have a moderate or severe illness with a fever should wait to get vaccinated until their symptoms lessen.

If you have questions about whether you should get a flu vaccine, consult your health care provider.

How to Know if You Have the Flu

Your respiratory illness might be the flu if you have sudden onset of body aches, fever, and respiratory symptoms, and your illness occurs during November through April (the usual flu season in the Northern Hemisphere). However, during this time, other respiratory illnesses can cause similar symptoms and flu can be caught at any time of the year. It is impossible to tell for sure if you have the flu based on symptoms alone. Doctors can perform tests to see if you have the flu if you are in the first few days of your illness.

What You Should Do If You Get the Flu

  • Stay home
  • Rest
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Take fever reducers (acetaminophen or ibuprofen)

Influenza is caused by a virus, so antibiotics (like penicillin) don't work to cure it. The best way to prevent the flu is to get an influenza vaccine (flu shot) each fall, before flu season.

Misconceptions about Flu Vaccination - and the Facts

Among other reasons, several misconceptions keep people from getting their annual flu vaccination. The myths and the facts include:

  • "I'm healthy. I don't need to get a flu shot." Actually, flu can cause serious illness and death even in young, healthy people. It's not just a disease that affects the elderly.
  • "I don't want to get the vaccine because it has side effects." Studies have shown that the flu vaccine is not associated with higher rates of systemic symptoms than are seen with injections of placebos among healthy working adults. The most common side effect of flu vaccination via a shot is soreness, redness, and swelling at the injection site for a day or two. The most common side effects from the nasal form of flu vaccine are a runny nose and nasal congestion.
  • "I got the flu vaccine before and I still got the flu, so why should I get it now?" The vaccine isn't perfect, but in years when there is a good match between the circulating viruses and the corresponding vaccine strains, vaccine efficacy for reducing illness has generally been between 70%-90% in healthy adults.

Flu Terms Defined

There has been a lot of discussion about different kinds of influenza lately. Here are some basic definitions.

  • Seasonal (or common) flu is a respiratory illness that can be transmitted person to person. Most people have some immunity, and a vaccine is available.
  • Avian (or bird) flu is caused by influenza viruses that occur naturally among wild birds. The H5N1 variant is deadly to domestic fowl and can be transmitted from birds to humans. There is no human immunity and no vaccine is available.
  • Pandemic flu is virulent human flu that causes a global outbreak, or pandemic, of serious illness. Because there is little natural immunity, the disease can spread easily from person to person. Currently, there is no pandemic flu.

From www.pandemicflu.gov, the main Federal Web site for pandemic flu and avian flu.

For information on influenza, visit

And remember: The annual flu vaccination is the single best way to protect against seasonal or common flu.

Updated/Reviewed November 27, 2006