It is National Influenza Vaccination Week and, according to Dr. Tom Friedan, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the flu vaccine can decrease your odds of contracting the flu by as much as 60 percent. These are odds worth acting on, especially when considering that approximately 200,000 people each year are hospitalized with flu-related symptoms.
Unfortunately, several myths about flu shots and their side effects have discouraged people from getting vaccinated. One of the most pervasive myths is that the flu vaccine causes the flu virus: in other words, if you get a flu shot, you will also get the flu. This is untrue. The flu shot does not contain live viruses and, therefore, is not infectious. The nasal flu vaccine does contain live viruses, but because the viruses have been weakened, they also cannot cause the flu. A few patients report feeling cold-like symptoms after receiving the nasal flu shot, but these symptoms are limited: the weakened viruses used in the nasal vaccines are cold-adapted, which means they can only cause minor reactions in the cooler temperatures found within the nose—not the warmer temperatures found within the lungs.
Who Should Get Vaccinated?
The CDC recommends that all persons age six months and older get vaccinated. Vaccination is especially important for the young and the elderly (age 4 and under or age 50 and over), pregnant women, people with compromised immune systems, and people who work in high-exposure environments (like nursing homes, hospitals, and schools). If you are regularly in contact with anyone who falls in the above categories, then you should also get vaccinated. Because anyone, healthy or not, is susceptible to the flu virus, vaccination is the most beneficial and most responsible option for protecting yourself again influenza.
Different Types of Vaccines
There are several kinds of flu vaccines, so it is important to get the one that is right for you. The traditional flu shot is available in various forms for various age groups, including a high-dose vaccine for the elderly and for those with chronic health conditions. For the needle-phobic, and anyone age 3 to 49, the nasal flu shot is an excellent option; however, the nasal flu shot is not recommended for pregnant women, people with a history of allergies, or people with weakened immune systems. For a complete list of restrictions, visit the Centers for Disease Control’s website.
What Are the Side Effects of the Flu Vaccine?
In addition to a runny nose, the nasal flu shot may cause minor side effects, such as sore throat, cough, or headache. Children who get the nasal flu shot may experience harsher side effects, including wheezing, muscle aches, fever, or vomiting. For adults and children alike, the side effects of the traditional flu shot are usually mild, from soreness or swelling at the injection site to minor body aches.
In general, the side effects are negligible compared to the threat the flu poses, especially for the young and elderly. The CDC estimates that thousands of people die from the flu or flu-related symptoms each year: 90% of those deaths are people age 65 and over, and 145 children died of flu-related symptoms last year alone. The good news is the CDC predicts this year’s vaccine will be more effective than last year’s and will protect against several forms of the influenza virus.
When Should You Get the Flu Vaccine?
Since it takes approximately two weeks for your antibodies to develop after you receive the vaccine, the earlier you get vaccinated, the better. Getting your flu shot during National Influenza Week will ensure that you are protected before the height of flu season in mid to late January. However, since the flu season can extend into February, if not later, you are still better off getting the flu shot late in the season than not at all.
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015, September 8). Misconceptions about seasonal flu and flu vaccines. CDC. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/misconceptions.htm
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National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. (2015, September 28) Key facts about influenza. NIH. Retrieved from http://www.niaid.nih.gov/topics/flu/understandingflu/pages/seasonalvaccine.aspx
US Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Vaccine and vaccine safety. flu.gov Retrieved from http://www.flu.gov/prevention-vaccination/vaccination/index.html