Flu Season: Importance of Getting a Flu Shot

Written by Eloise Porter | Published on October 20, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, MBA on October 20, 2014

The Importance of the Flu Shot

The typical flu season occurs from fall to early spring. The length and severity of an epidemic may vary. and some lucky individuals may get through flu-free. We can always expect 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.

The coughing, fever, headache, sore throat, and runny nose that come with the flu can be enough to keep you bedridden for a week or more. A cold can really put a damper on your work and social life. If you’re worried about missing out on holiday celebrations, family events, social activities, or work, flu prevention is key. Getting an annual flu shot can spare you the misery of illness and ensure that you don’t miss out on activities and events this season.

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 by helping your immune system to produce antibodies. These help the body to fight off the types of flu virus that are present in the vaccine. It takes about two weeks after receiving the flu shot for these antibodies to fully develop.  

Who Needs a Flu Shot?

While some may be more prone to infection than others, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommend that everyone six months of age or older be vaccinated against the flu.

Flu shots are not 100 percent effective in preventing the flu. However, they are still the most effective method to protect against this virus and its related complications.

High-Risk Individuals

Certain groups are at an increased risk for catching 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 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
  • day care 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. These include people who:

  • have had a bad reaction to the disease in the past
  • are severely allergic to eggs. If you are mildly allergic, talk to your doctor, as you may still qualify for the vaccine.
  • are allergic to mercury. Some flu vaccines contain trace amounts of mercury to prevent vaccine contamination.
  • had Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), a rare side effect of temporary paralysis that occurs after receiving the flu vaccine. Some individuals at high risk for complications and who have had GBS may still be eligible for the vaccine. These individuals should talk with their doctors before receiving another vaccination.
  • have a fever the day of the vaccination. These individuals should wait until the fever is gone before receiving a vaccination.

Are There Any Side Effects to the Flu Vaccine?

Many people incorrectly assume that the flu vaccine could give them the flu, but flu shots are safe for most people. Although you cannot get the flu from the shot, 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

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 not often as effective in these individuals. They are at the highest risk for flu-related complications and death.

This vaccine contains four times the amount of antigens as there are in a normal-dose flu vaccine. Antigens are those parts of the flu vaccine that stimulate the immune system’s production of antibodies, which combat the flu virus.

According to the CDC, studies have not yet proven the effectiveness of this vaccine. There is a major study currently being conducted that is comparing the results of the commonly used flu shot vaccine with Fluzone High-Dose. The study should be finished by 2014 or 2015.

Intradermal Flu Shot

The FDA recently approved another type of vaccine, Fluzone Intradermal, for people between 18 and 64. The typical flu shot is injected into the muscles of the arm. This version uses smaller needles to inject vaccine just under the skin.

Intradermal vaccine may be an attractive choice for those afraid of needles because the needles are 90 percent smaller than those used with the typical flu shot.

While this method works just as well as the typical flu shot, side effects of swelling, redness, roughness, or itchiness at the site of injection are more common. According to the CDC, some people may also experience headache, muscle aches, or fatigue. These side effects should disappear within three to seven days.

Nasal Spray Vaccine

Individuals with no chronic medical conditions, who are not pregnant, and who are between 2 and 49 years of age are also eligible for the nasal spray form of the flu vaccine (LAIV FluMist). 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

A seasonal flu shot is still 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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