The vaccine is your best defense against this year’s flu season.
We’ve learned to fear cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and even once-distant diseases like Ebola. Yet millions of Americans still don’t take the flu seriously — a misjudgment that can be deadly, health officials say. “The point is that influenza can cause a lot of illness and it can be severe,” said Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
For most people who catch it, the flu is simply a miserable illness that sidelines them for a few days, but it can morph into far more dangerous diseases like pneumonia and bronchitis. A bout of flu can set off asthma attacks and worsen congestive heart failure in people with those conditions. Flu is especially serious in people who are most vulnerable — the very young or old, nursing home residents, pregnant women, and anyone with a chronic health condition like heart disease, lung disease, or kidney or liver disease.
The best way to protect yourself against the flu and its complications is to get vaccinated at the start of each season. When you get vaccinated, you also protect the people around you who might otherwise catch your germs. “The more people vaccinated the more benefit to individuals, the fewer the hospitalizations, the fewer the illnesses and deaths,” Frieden added.
According to one CDC report, vaccination prevented at least 6.6 million illnesses and 79,000 hospitalizations during the 2012-2013 flu season. Yet the news seemed to offer little motivation to most Americans. By the following November, a time when most people should have already received their flu shot, only 40 percent had been vaccinated.
Vaccine mistrust and misperceptions
Vaccination avoidance stems from mistrust and misperceptions, according to one survey. Many of those who skip their annual flu shot claim they don’t need the vaccine or fear it causes side effects.
Others argue the vaccine isn’t effective, which might seem the case after CDC estimates from the 2014-2015 season found it only prevented 23 percent of flu-related doctor’s visits. Yet statistics like this one tell only part of the story. Each flu season has its own distinct viral signature. The circulating virus strains change each year, and experts who develop the vaccine have to predict which ones will be most prevalent. Their predictions are more accurate in some seasons than in others.
Even during flu seasons when the strains aren’t a perfect match, the vaccine can still trigger enough of an antibody response to offer at least some protection. If you do catch the flu, you’ll likely have a milder illness if you’ve been vaccinated.
As for safety, no vaccine is 100 percent guaranteed. But the flu vaccine has been around for more than a half-century, and it has a pretty good track record. Any side effects that do occur are usually mild.
Who needs a flu vaccine?
The CDC recommends flu vaccination for everyone age 6 months or older. Those aged 2 to 49 can get the nasal spray vaccine instead, although pregnant woman, people with a weakened immune system, and kids with asthma should avoid the spray because it contains a live (although weakened) virus.
The optimal time to get your flu vaccine is in September or October, to give your body a chance to build up immunity before the virus begins spreading. Starting early is especially important for children under 8, who will need two doses given four weeks apart to fully protect them. Even if winter arrives and you still haven’t gotten a flu shot, it isn’t too late to arm yourself.
Getting a flu vaccine is a good habit for everyone to get into — with a few exceptions. Anyone who is allergic to eggs or another vaccine component, or who has had Guillain-Barré syndrome may not be able to get vaccinated. If you fall into one of these groups, talk to your doctor about other ways to protect yourself this season.
March 30, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN