Flu season starts today. We asked experts if you need a flu shot this year

It's here. Flu season officially starts Monday. Fever, chills, tissue boxes, a bottle of ibuprofen, hydrating drinks, flannel shirts and fleece blankets will be in our future. Well, at least for some of us. A lot of us want to how best to avoid it and what to expect.

The Ohio Department of Health begins its seasonal influenza activity report on the 40th week of the year.

We asked some of our region's public health leaders, a nurse practitioner and area doctors about flu shots and more (including whether they've ever suffered from a flu because hey, misery loves company, right?).

Here's who we heard from:

  • Greg Kesterman, Hamilton County Public Health commissioner.

  • Dr. Mary Carol Burkhardt, a pediatrician, associate division director for primary care at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

  • Dr. Jennifer Forrester,  associate professor of infectious diseases at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and associate chief medical officer at UC Health.

  • Katrina Fernandez, certified nurse practitioner of Mercy Health – Delhi Primary Care.

  • Julianne Nesbit, Clermont County Public Health commissioner.

Here's what they said.

Question: When is flu season, really?

Kesterman: We generally consider flu season to be fall and winter.  Here in Hamilton County, that most often means October (or) November through March, but we have certainly seen flu through May.

Burkhardt: Most of the time, influenza peaks between December and March, but the flu can come as early as October and last well into spring. This is very hard to predict and can vary year to year. The flu virus does circulate year-round, but it is more common during those winter months.

Fernandez: This does vary! In the tropical and subtropical regions of the world, influenza seasonality is not well defined, and flu is known to circulate year-round. Here in the United States (and in the rest of the Northern Hemisphere) flu season occurs in the fall and in the winter.

Q: Would you say everyone needs a flu shot to avoid flu?

Kesterman: Everyone 6 months and older … with rare exception. Vaccination is particularly important for people who are at higher risk of developing serious flu complications.

Burkhardt: Yes, of course! Flu shots are recommended for everyone age 6 months or older.

The rest of the group: Yes, anyone 6 months and older.

Q: I'm busy. By when do I need to get a flu shot?

Kesterman: The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends by the end of October … (but) there is no 'must' for flu shots. They are not mandated, and you can get them as early or late into the flu season as you’d like.

Burkhardt: It is ideal to get a flu shot in the fall. That said, if you happen to delay, … getting the flu vaccine later in the winter is not a problem and will still provide protection for the remaining flu season.

Forrester: The earlier you get it, the earlier you are protected.  But, whenever you are able to get it is when you should get it.

Q: Can you get both a flu shot and COVID-19 booster at the same time?

Forrester: I did not happen to get my COVID and influenza vaccines at the same time, but others in my family did and they felt just fine. Just two sore arms instead of one.

Burkhardt: Yes. There is no problem with this. Save yourself a visit and get them both together!

More: Booster, flu shot at same time?Study shows what if any adverse effects to expect from getting flu vaccine, COVID-19 MRNA booster at same time.

Q: When, if ever have you had the flu? How do you think you caught it?

Burkhardt: I was late getting my flu shot one year as a college student, not thinking to prepare ahead and busy with my life. My guess is that I caught it living in a dorm and being around lots of people. I remember lying in bed and not wanting to move due to fever and body aches, but also knowing that I had a huge final exam that I needed to get to! I debated what to do, but rolled out of bed and took that exam. I have been very proactive about getting an early flu shot ever since that experience!

Nesbit: I was diagnosed with the flu last year even after being vaccinated, but it was a mild case without any complicated symptoms.

Fernandez: I was probably 22 years old at the time, working in the emergency department. You do your best to protect yourself against exposure to viruses, bacteria, blood, saliva, strange colored fluids, but it’s a hospital. I used personal protective equipment as needed, washed my hands frequently, and had been scheduled to get my flu shot within the next two weeks. But here I was, breaking out in a cold sweat while I was hanging up an IV bag.

Forrester: I had the flu several years ago, probably in my 30s. My muscles hurt everywhere, I had a headache that lasted several days and I was so tired.  It was not "just a bad cold." That being said, I wasn't sick enough to need to go to the hospital.

Q: What was, to you, the ‘worst’ symptom of the flu?

Burkhardt: Personally, I think body aches are the most uncomfortable symptom. But perhaps the worst symptom of flu is respiratory distress, which is what leads to most hospitalizations and deaths from influenza.

Nesbit: "I think the 'worst' symptom can vary from person to person, but overall, feeling lousy with body aches and upper respiratory symptoms were the worst for me.Fernandez: The worst symptom of the flu is the shortness of breath and chest tightness. I have mild underlying asthma and a bad cold or flu episode can send me into a tailspin.

Forrester: The muscle aches were intense and in seemingly every muscle in my body. I could not get comfortable at all.  Luckily, that was the worst symptom I had, but again, I was thankfully able to recover quickly at home.

Q: How do I avoid spreading the flu?

Kesterman: The most important thing you can do is stay home when you are ill.

Burkhardt: Please don’t be like me taking that college final exam! Stay home when you are sick. Wash your hands regularly and practice good hand hygiene. Limit being in large crowds and events.

Fernandez: The first major mode of transmission for flu is by droplet. This means coughing, sneezing, talking or breathing. The second way is through direct contact such as shaking hands, touching your nose, mouth or eyes after contact with a contaminated surface.

A little girl gets a flu shot (Getty Images)
A little girl gets a flu shot (Getty Images)

Q: What do you think is most important for people to know about flu?

Kesterman: While most of us take the flu lightly as an annual inconvenience, in some cases flu can make you really sick. This is especially true for the very young, seniors and those with chronic diseases and immune system issues. Flu can also negatively affect pregnancy.

Burkhardt: People need to know two really important things. First, the flu is easily preventable, by getting the flu vaccine. Second, though many people get flu and recover, there are some people who don’t. Serious complications and death can happen, which is hard to accept when we know prevention through vaccination is possible.

Fernandez: Please do know that it is a myth that anyone would get sick with the flu by getting the flu shot. The immunizations are made from inactivated viruses or weakened (live attenuated) viruses that have no disease-causing potential.

Nesbit: Different flu strains circulate each year, so it is important to get vaccinated annually. It is also essential to think about protecting others. Healthy adults may not be as concerned about getting the flu, but if they have contact with infants, the elderly, or immune-compromised loved ones, they should get vaccinated to protect them.

Forrester: The fatality rate of most influenza strains is lower than COVID, but the illness can be worse than some COVID variants for some folks.  Plus, the flu can keep you down and out for about a week or so, and that's a lot of time off work or out of school, athletics, or other fun events.

A CVS health leader gets a flu shot as the team goes through the CVS process for COVID-19 and flu shots. (Photo Phil Didion)
A CVS health leader gets a flu shot as the team goes through the CVS process for COVID-19 and flu shots. (Photo Phil Didion)

Q: Have you had your flu shot yet? Are they even available?

Kesterman: Flu shots are available. (Mine) is on the agenda very soon!

Nesbit: Yes, on Tuesday, at the same time as my COVID-19 bivalent booster shot.

Fernandez: I am planning to get my flu shot along with my next COVID booster to save on downtime. The 2022-2023 flu shots are now available at your primary care offices and local pharmacies, but it’s always good to call ahead for an appointment.

Forrester: I plan on getting it next week when I have a little more free time.

(Oh, and if your kiddo is nervous about needles, or if you are, there's a nasal spray, too. We've heard it may be a bit harder to find, but it's out there. And it's recommended only for those 2 years to 49 years old.)

What is it: Flu? Cold? COVID? Allergies?Symptoms of these maladies may be similar.

Dr. Kevin Rodriguez, left, a frontline care provider, is given the swine flu live virus vaccine nasal mist by nurse practitioner Judy Gallob at the Maricopa Medical Center.
Dr. Kevin Rodriguez, left, a frontline care provider, is given the swine flu live virus vaccine nasal mist by nurse practitioner Judy Gallob at the Maricopa Medical Center.

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Is it flu season? What do I do? Experts advise, and empathize