“I’m so busy.”
“I’m allergic to eggs.”
“The vaccine can actually give me the flu, right?”
We’ve all heard the excuses before, but from a clinical standpoint there are many reasons why you and your loved ones should consider the influenza (flu) vaccine. The flu is a viral infection that affects the upper respiratory system. It is spread through the air and can cause mild-to-severe illness. The flu is highly contagious. When an infected person sneezes, coughs, or speaks, tiny droplets full of flu particles are expelled. Because these droplets are small, they are suspended in the air long enough for another person to inhale them.
During each flu season, one or more specific types of the influenza virus are responsible for causing the flu. Many times, people may have one of many viruses that cause flu-like symptoms, but not actually be infected with the influenza virus. The flu and its symptoms are more severe, and in most cases more numerous, than those of the common cold. The flu can lead to bronchitis or pneumonia.
Millions of people around the world get the flu virus every year, and tens of thousands of them die. It is particularly life-threatening for the elderly, people with lung disease, and anyone with a weakened immune system. The best way to avoid getting the flu is by being vaccinated every year.
How Does the Vaccine Work?
Flu season may begin as early as October and last until May in some regions of the United States. The influenza vaccine, while not perfect, significantly decreases the risk of catching the annual flu epidemic. It also may lead to less severe symptoms if influenza does develop.
In the two weeks after you are given the flu vaccine, your body develops antibodies that protect you if you are exposed to the viruses that are in the vaccine. Each year’s vaccine is based on research that indicates which type(s) of the influenza virus are most likely to be prevalent in the general population during the coming flu season. Because the viruses in the vaccine are inactivated, or killed, the flu shot cannot cause you to get the flu.
In the past, a nasal spray vaccine was available, but was found to be less effective than traditional injectable shots, which are usually given in the arm muscle.
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Who Can Get the Flu Vaccine?
The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) is comprised of public health experts who develop recommendations on the use of vaccines in the civilian population of the United States. These recommendations act as guidelines for safe use of vaccines and related biological products. With few exceptions, the ACIP’s most recent recommendation is that everyone aged six months or older be given an annual influenza vaccine.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the following groups are at particular risk for developing flu-related complications and should have an annual vaccination as a form of protection:
- Children younger than 5, but especially children younger than 2 years old.
- Adults 65 years of age and older.
- Pregnant women and women up to two weeks postpartum.
- Residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
- Also, American Indians and Alaskan Natives seem to be at higher risk of flu complications.
In addition, those with these medical conditions should be vaccinated against the influenza virus:
- Neurological and neurodevelopmental conditions such as cerebral palsy, epilepsy, stroke, intellectual disability, moderate to severe developmental delay, muscular dystrophy, or spinal cord injury.
- Chronic lung disease such as COPD and cystic fibrosis.
- Heart disease.
- Blood disorders such as sickle cell disease.
- Endocrine disorders like diabetes mellitus.
- Kidney disorders.
- Liver disorders.
- Metabolic disorders.
- Weakened immune system due to disease or medication, including people with HIV or AIDS, cancer, or those on chronic steroids.
- People younger than 19 years of age who are receiving long-term aspirin therapy.
- People with extreme obesity (BMI of 40 or more).
Lastly, the CDC recently upgraded their recommendations for people with allergies to eggs, a component in some influenza vaccines. They include:
- Those with a history of egg allergy who have only experienced hives after exposure to eggs should receive the flu vaccine. Any licensed and recommended flu vaccine that is otherwise appropriate for the recipient’s age and health status may be used.
- Persons who have had reactions to eggs involving symptoms other than hives, such as angioedema, respiratory distress, lightheadedness, or recurrent emesis; or who required epinephrine or another emergency medical intervention, may similarly receive any licensed and recommended flu vaccine that is otherwise appropriate for their age and health status. The vaccine should be administered in an inpatient or outpatient medical and be supervised by a health care provider who is able to recognize and manage severe allergic conditions.
- People with a previous severe, life-threatening allergic reaction to flu vaccine, regardless of the component should NOT receive future vaccines.
Where Can I Get the Flu Vaccine?
It is now possible to get the flu vaccination in a number of convenient locations, and many health insurance plans will cover the cost at no charge. It typically takes no more than a few minutes to be vaccinated. Places to consider getting your flu shot include:
- Doctor’s offices.
- Medical clinics.
- Schools and workplaces.
- Grocery stores.
- Health departments.
- Community centers.
Getting a flu vaccine not only protects you, but also those around you like babies who are too young to be vaccinated, older people, and those with chronic medical conditions.
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Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP): www.cdc.gov/vaccines/hcp/acip-recs/vacc-specific/flu
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): www.cdc.gov/flu