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What's it Really Like to Have the Flu?

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Photo credit: bugphai

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I’m not one to make waves on Facebook.  I don’t post anything political and you’ll never hear me trash talk during football season.  I’ll do just about anything to steer clear of online debates except when it comes to the flu vaccine. I jump on my soapbox and I share all the news stories, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stats, and selfies of me getting my annual shot. Why? Because I know there’s a lot of misinformation out there and it’s hard to find the facts. But here’s something I can tell you with complete certainty: The flu is no joke.  It can and does kill people, and until I was almost one of them, I didn’t really understand just how serious it could be.

I was 27 and relatively healthy. My flu symptoms were mild at first.  I felt run down, achy, and had a little cough; I stupidly decided I would try to power through.  (Sorry, co-workers. It is inconsiderate moves like this that help spread this highly contagious virus.)

At home that night, my symptoms got worse. I did NOT want to admit that I was getting sick, but with a pounding headache, a churning stomach, congestion, and a low-grade fever, it was hard to shrug it off. Thinking I could beat my illness with a hefty dose of over-the-counter cold medication and a solid night’s sleep, I headed to bed and planned to feel much better by morning. I was so, SO wrong.  My flu progressed over the next several days to a point where I was having difficulty breathing. I was coughing so hard I couldn’t keep anything down and I was exhausted but too sick to even sleep. I felt worse than I ever could have imagined and the possibility that I was dying passed through my head. I felt that terrible. So terrible, in fact, that when I was finally able to get myself to the hospital, I was admitted and kept there for five days under the constant care of nurses and doctors.  I was severely dehydrated and my potassium levels were dangerously low—so low that it was affecting my heart rate. My body was shutting down.

“I know there’s a lot of misinformation out there and it’s hard to find the facts. But here’s something I can tell you with complete certainty—the flu is no joke. ”
Phaedra Laird, writer

Had I gotten vaccinated that year, I may have still gotten sick. But according to Dr. Barbara Keber, a family medicine practitioner at Glen Cove Hospital, a Northwell Health facility, it would have probably been a much less severe case. The vaccine works by getting your own immune system to protect you by making antibodies to the virus. Flu virus comes in many types and is different each year. “By getting the vaccine each season,” she explains, “the body continues to build its immunity and although you may develop the flu, you will not get nearly as sick or have as many serious complications like pneumonia.”

It took weeks for me to fully recover and feel like myself again. My close call could have been avoided had I just listened to my mother in the first place and made the time to get the shot. And no, you cannot get the flu from a flu shot. “Flu shots do not contain the live virus. So, it cannot reproduce or multiply in your body. Any mild symptoms you experience are your body forming the protection to keep you from getting seriously ill. That’s the greatest misconception about the flu shot,” Dr. Keber says.

Why do so many people get sick?

Every year, different strains of flu circulate; many months before the season begins, researchers predict which three or four strains will appear and design a shot that targets them. The CDC reports that the strain that predominated during the 2017-2018 flu season, H3N2—a particularly aggressive form of the virus—was hard to vaccinate against because it was constantly changing. Getting vaccinated will still offer your body some protection, so that if you do get sick, you’ll likely end up with a milder case.  Think of it this way: It may be enough to keep you out of the hospital. That’s a good incentive to roll up your sleeve for a pinch. More to the point, says Dr. Keber, “The flu vaccine could save your life.”

With so many “whys” asked by nonbelievers, I ask “why not?”  After my dangerous brush with the flu, I will never go unvaccinated again. In fact, I make it an annual ritual. Every election day, without fail, I vote and then I get a flu shot. And I’ll continue to shout it from the rooftops—or at least post about it on Facebook—as my own public service announcement. Because I know what it’s like to get it, and trust me, you don’t want it.

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Published February 13th, 2018

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