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What Should Cancer Patients and Family Do About the Flu Vaccine?

Now that it is October the question arises as to whether individuals with cancer and their families should get the flu shot. This is an important question to discuss every year in the Fall. It is essential that individuals with cancer discuss this with their own health care providers (e.g. oncologists or primary care provider) so that the decision may be based on their individual case. And there are individuals who cannot have it because they have an allergy to eggs or a history of Guillain-Barre syndrome or previous reaction to a flu shot.

Influenza (flu) is a contagious virus that occurs every year. The peak season is generally from January through March. The most common symptoms of the flu are:

muscle aches
sore throat

Individuals who have weakened immune systems may get sicker if they get the flu than normal healthy individuals. They may even have to be hospitalized. This can be very serious because your body may not be able to fight off the flu virus. Thus, most individuals with cancer (especially if you are undergoing treatment) should receive the flu shot each year.

The best time to get the flu shot is NOW (October or November). You want to receive the flu shot well before January. The shot will usually protect you from the flu for 2 weeks after the shot and up to a year. Even if you have your health care provider gives you a flu shot you can still catch the flu, but getting the shot will reduce the chances of getting the flu and will reduce symptoms if you do get the flu.

People often ask if they will get the flu when they get the shot. There are 2 types of flu vaccine. The one called the "flu shot" is an inactivated (killed) form of the influenza virus. This is the type of shot you will need. The second vaccine is a new Flumist. It is a nasal spray of Live vaccine. This is only for healthy individuals between 5-49 years old. You will not get the flu but you may have some mild symptoms:
Soreness, redness, or swelling at the injection site
Muscle aches

The next important question is should the family members of cancer survivors get a flu shot. Again, it is crucial that you discuss this with your physicians and your family members' physicians to be sure there are no reasons that your family members should NOT have the vaccine. In general, it is recommended that other members of your family should receive the flu shot to lessen the chances of getting the flu and giving it to the individual with cancer. Any pregnant family members should call their obstetrician before getting the flu shot. It is important your family members get the Killed vaccine rather than the live vaccine.

If you would like more information regarding the flu shot you can contact the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at 800-232-2522 or on the internet at http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/flushot.htm

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