While the start of October ushers in crisp weather and fall marathons, it is also marks the beginning of another time: flu season. In the United States, flu outbreaks typically begin at the beginning of October and can occur as late as May. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that flu-related hospitalizations since 2010 ranged from 140,000 to 710,000, while flu-related deaths are estimated to have ranged from 12,000 to 56,000.
Most runners think of themselves as healthy individuals who are not prone to sickness. But even the healthiest endurance athletes can catch Influenza A. For active runners, the flu can be very unpleasant. But for others around us, catching it could be a life or death experience.
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Getting a seasonal flu shot is the best way to protect yourself and those around you from getting Influenza A. However many runners bristle at the thought of the vaccine. Here is why it is beneficial for healthy, active people.
Why You Should Get A Flu Shot
Flu season falls within both the fall and spring marathon training cycles. Coming down with the illness could seriously impact your race preparation and recovery.
“Influenza A can knock even a healthy person on their back for five days so if you get this illness, you’re potentially missing up to a week or more of training,” says Dr. David Schechter, MD, a family and sports medicine physician based in Culver City California and author of the book Think Away Your Pain.
After a successful race, runners are at a greater risk for catching an illness. Immune systems can be impaired for a week or more after competiton.
“There have been many studies that have shown an increased risk of colds during that week,” says Dr.Schechter. “Therefore it’s logical to assume that if you’re exposed to someone with the flu, then you’ll have a higher incidence of getting the flu the week after a marathon.”
Getting vaccinated is also not just about individual health. If more people get a flu shot, it is less likely that Influenza A will spread through a community, becoming an epidemic. This is especially important for runners who are around children, elderly or any other population where catching a flu could be life threatening. Plus the last thing you want to do is spread an illness around to everyone in your running group.
Of course there are people who simply cannot get the flu shot. Those who have had an allergic reaction to a past flu shot or have an egg allergy are typically advised not to get one. Consult a doctor if you have any worries.
Flu Shot Myths
Besides a fear of shots or needles, some runners worry that the vaccine itself could cause the flu. This is a mistaken notion though. Runners do not need to reduce their training as a result of getting the shot. It does not cause any illness and won’t impact any athletic pursuits.
Side effects can include soreness at the point of injection and fatigue that lasts for 12 hours. However many people don’t feel any different. While it won’t affect training, it still probably is a good idea to get the flu shot at least a week before or right after a goal race.
A common misleading claim is that flu shots don’t work. People will state that they got sick the year they received a flu shot, but remained healthy when they did not.
“What I’ll say to them is you may have gotten sick 2 years ago but did you really have Influenza A or did you have another kind of illness,” said Dr. Schechter.
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Influenza A comes on suddenly, with fever, aches, chills, fatigue headache and cough. In severe cases, vomiting and diarrhea can occur. These symptoms are much more pronounced than with a seasonal cold. It’s true that a flu shot won’t protect against a cold. But Influenza A is much worse and takes longer to recover from.
“If you’re talking about younger athletic people, they’re not going to die from the flu,” said Dr. Schechter. “But you’ll be pretty miserable for a week.”
The Bottom Line
Getting the shot won’t cause runners to miss any valuable marathon training days. On the contrary, it can keep athletes healthier so they won’t have a disruption in training due to a serious illness.
The CDC recommends flu shots for everyone six months and older. While Dr. Schechter does not force every patient to receive it, he strongly encourages everyone it.
“I definitely advise it. I think it’s good for athletes. It’s good for active people.”