The thought of being stuck with a needle can cause a certain amount of anxiety, but a flu shot can make your life a whole lot easier. With a brief needle stick or nasal spray, you can be protected from an illness that’s not only inconvenient, but dangerous. Influenza is not just a simple cold – the high fever, chills, body aches, sore throat, cough and fatigue are all much more severe than the common cold. The flu blindsides you with its intensity and can lead to up to two weeks of sheer misery. According to the American Lung Association (ALA), more than 200,000 people in the U.S. are hospitalized every year from the flu, and anywhere from 3,000 to 49,000 people die from influenza-related causes. (ALA)
How does the flu shot work?
The vaccine is a safe, effective way to prevent influenza. You cannot get the flu from getting a flu shot. While a small amount of the virus is used to make the flu shot, it cannot produce an active infection in your body. You may experience soreness in the spot where you get the shot, but that is the reaction of your immune system making protective antibodies so that you can fight off the real influenza virus.
The nasal spray does contain live (but weakened) flu virus, and some people, usually children, can develop a few mild, flu-like symptoms after the nasal spray.
The seasonal flu vaccine is changed every year in order to keep up with the three strains of influenza viruses which research indicates will be most common in the upcoming season. So yes, you really do need to get a new one every year. The season includes the fall and winter, with a peak in infections anytime between November and March. The influenza virus is constantly mutating and changing, and there are many strains of the virus like “A”, “B” and “C” types. You need the latest shot in order to be protected.
Who needs the flu shot?
Everyone can benefit from the flu shot, but it’s crucial for certain groups. Getting the flu sets you up for secondary infections and serious complications, especially if you are in a high-risk group. Pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus and ear infections are just some of the possible complications.
The very old and very young are at greater risk of these complications. Children as young as six months old can safely have a flu shot and adults over 65 should always get their flu shot as soon as possible during flu season. People with chronic health conditions like diabetes, asthma, heart disease, or people who have a weakened immune system should make it a priority to get the protection of a flu vaccination. Healthcare workers who may be exposed to many ill people should also get the vaccine.
Pregnant women should get vaccinated no matter their stage of pregnancy. Changes in a pregnant woman’s heart, lungs, and immune system make the symptoms of the flu much more dangerous for both mother and child. Premature labor and delivery is more likely in pregnant women with an influenza infection. Getting the flu shot will protect both the mother and the baby even after birth. If you are concerned about thiomerosal (a mercury preservative) in vaccines, you can request a preservative-free vaccine. Breastfeeding mothers should also get a flu shot to protect themselves and to pass on protective antibodies to their infants, making it less likely that their child under 6 months of age will get the flu.
If you want to get a flu shot but are feeling sick already, you may need to speak with your doctor or pharmacist about whether or not you should get an immunization. A mild cold or case of the sniffles should still allow you to get a flu shot, but if you have a high fever you may need to wait.
Some people may not be eligible for the flu shot, or may need to speak with their physician to determine if an alternative is available. These people include:
- People who are allergic to chicken eggs
- Infants under six months
- People who have had a severe reaction to a flu shot in the past
- People with a history Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS), a disorder that causes weakness and paralysis. In rare cases, some people have developed GBS after receiving a vaccination
Flu shot versus nasal spray
Some at-risk groups are advised against using the nasal spray option. This includes pregnant women, people with chronic health conditions (like asthma, heart or lung disease, kidney problems or weakened immune systems), infants between 6 months and 2 years old, adults over 50 years, and people with a severe allergy to chicken eggs. For people with egg allergies, both the nasal spray and the injection include egg proteins and may cause severe allergic reaction, but some people with this allergy may be able to safely have a flu shot. Speak with your doctor if you have any questions.