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Flu Season: Importance of Getting a Flu Shot

Key points

  1. A seasonal flu shot is the single best way to protect against the flu.
  2. The flu shot works by helping your immune system to produce antibodies.
  3. There are several different flu shots for you to choose from, depending on your age and medical condition.

The typical flu season occurs from fall to early spring. The length and severity of an epidemic may vary. Some lucky individuals can get through the season flu-free. But be prepared to be surrounded by sneezing and coughing for a few months out of every year.

According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), the flu affects between 5 and 20 percent of the U.S. population each year.

Flu symptoms usually include:

  • coughing
  • fever
  • headache
  • sore throat
  • runny nose

The symptoms that come with the flu can keep you bedridden for a week or more. Flu prevention is key if you don’t want to miss out on:

  • holiday celebrations
  • family events
  • social activities
  • work

How does the flu shot work?

The flu virus changes and adapts every year, which is why it’s so widespread and difficult to avoid. New vaccines are created and released every year to keep up with these rapid changes. Before each new flu season, federal health experts predict which three strains of the flu are most likely to thrive. They use that information to manufacture the appropriate vaccines.

The flu shot works because it prompts your immune system to produce antibodies. In turn, these antibodies help the body fight off the types of flu virus that are present in the vaccine. After receiving the flu shot it takes about two weeks for these antibodies to fully develop.

Who needs a flu shot?

Some people may be more prone to infection than others. That’s why the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that everyone 6 months of age or older be vaccinated against the flu.

The shots are not 100-percent effective in preventing the flu. But they are the most effective method to protect against this virus and its related complications.

High-risk individuals

Certain groups are at an increased risk for getting the flu and developing potentially dangerous flu-related complications. It’s important that people in these high risk groups be vaccinated. According to the CDC, these individuals include:

  • pregnant women
  • children between 6 months and 5 years of age
  • people 18 and under who receive aspirin therapy
  • people over 50
  • anyone with chronic medical conditions
  • people whose body mass index is 40 or higher
  • American Indians or Alaska Natives
  • anyone living or working in a nursing home or chronic care facility
  • caregivers of any of the above individuals

Chronic medical conditions that could increase your risk of complications include:

  • asthma
  • heart or lung problems
  • HIV/AIDS
  • cancer
  • metabolic diseases
  • neurological conditions, such as epilepsy
  • blood conditions, such as sickle cell anemia
  • obesity
  • kidney or liver disease

According to the CDC, people under the age of 19 who are on aspirin therapy as well as people taking steroid medications on a regular basis should also be vaccinated.

Workers in public settings have more risk of exposure to the disease, so it’s very important that they receive a vaccination. People who are in regular contact with at-risk individuals, such as the elderly and children, should also be vaccinated. Those people include:

  • teachers
  • daycare employees
  • hospital workers
  • public workers
  • healthcare providers
  • employees of nursing homes and chronic-care facilities
  • home care providers
  • emergency response personnel
  • household members of people in those professions

People who live in close quarters with others, such as college students and members of the military, are also at a greater risk for exposure.

Who should not get a flu shot?

Some people should not get a flu shot. Don’t get a flu shot if you have the following conditions.

Previous bad reaction

People who have had a bad reaction to the flu vaccine in the past should not get a flu shot.

Egg allergy

People who are severely allergic to eggs should avoid vaccination. If you are mildly allergic, talk to your doctor. You may still qualify for the vaccine.

Mercury allergy

People who are allergic to mercury should not get the shot. Some flu vaccines contain trace amounts of mercury to prevent vaccine contamination.

Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS)

Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) is a rare side effect that can occur after receiving the flu vaccine. It includes temporary paralysis. If you are at high risk for complications and have had GBS, you may still be eligible for the vaccine. Talk with your doctor to determine if you can receive it.

Fever

If you have a fever the day of the vaccination, you should wait until it’s gone before receiving the shot.

Are there any side effects to the flu vaccine?

Flu shots are safe for most people. Many people incorrectly assume that the flu vaccine can give them the flu. You can’t get the flu from the flu shot. But some people may experience flu-like symptoms within 24 hours of receiving the vaccine.

Possible side effects of the flu shot include:

  • low-grade fever
  • swollen, red, tender area around the injection site
  • chills or headache

These symptoms may occur as your body responds to the vaccine and builds antibodies that latter will help prevent illness. Symptoms are typically mild and go away within a day or two.

What vaccines are available?

High-dose flu shot

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently approved a high-dose flu vaccine (Fluzone High-Dose) for people 65 and over. Since the immune system response weakens with age, the regular flu vaccine is often not as effective in these individuals. They’re at the highest risk for flu-related complications and death.

This vaccine contains four times the amount of antigens compared to a normal-dose. Antigens are the components of the flu vaccine that stimulate the immune system’s production of antibodies, which combat the flu virus.

According to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, the high-dose vaccine proved to be 24 percent more effective in preventing flu in adults 65 years of age and older than the standard-dose vaccine.

Intradermal flu shot

The FDA recently approved another type of vaccine, Fluzone Intradermal. This vaccine is for people between 18 and 64 years of age. The typical flu shot is injected into the muscles of the arm. An intradermal vaccine uses smaller needles that enter just under the skin.

The needles are 90 percent smaller than those used for a typical flu shot. This may make the intradermal vaccine an attractive choice if you are afraid of needles.

This method works just as well as the typical flu shot, but side effects are more common. These can include the following reactions at the site of the injection:

  • swelling
  • redness
  • roughness
  • itchiness

According to the CDC, some people who receive the intradermal vaccine may also experience:

  • headache
  • muscle aches
  • fatigue

These side effects should disappear within three to seven days.

Nasal spray vaccine

If you meet the following three conditions, you may be eligible for the nasal spray form of the flu vaccine (LAIV FluMist):

  • You have no chronic medical conditions.
  • You aren’t pregnant.
  • You’re between 2 and 49 years of age.

According to the CDC, the spray is nearly equivalent to the flu shot in its effectiveness.

However, certain individuals should not receive the flu vaccine in nasal spray form. According to the CDC, these individuals include:

  • people 50 years or older
  • children under 2 years old
  • children between 2 and 5 who have had at least one wheezing episode in the past year
  • pregnant women
  • people who have had a serious reaction to flu vaccine in the past
  • people with asthma
  • children and adolescents on aspirin therapy
  • people severely allergic to eggs — if you are mildly allergic, talk to your doctor, as you may still qualify for the vaccine
  • people with muscle or nerve disorders that make swallowing or breathing difficult
  • people with weakened immune systems
  • people with a history of GBS

The takeaway

A seasonal flu shot is the single best way to protect against the flu. You can schedule an appointment to receive a flu shot at your doctor’s office or at a local clinic. Flu shots are now widely available at pharmacies and grocery stores, with no appointment necessary.

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