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Flu Shots: Your Best Weapon Against the Flu

  • Deepi Brar, M.S.
  • Posted March 11, 2013

Should I get a flu shot?

In general, there's no good reason not to. The flu hits millions of Americans catch the flu, and more than 200,000 wind up in the hospital. Not only can a flu shot protect you from the illness, it will also keep you from spreading the virus to people around you.

Still, a flu shot doesn't guarantee that you won't get sick. If you're young and healthy, the vaccine reduces your chances of getting the flu by 70 to 90 percent. If you have a weak immune system or you're over 65, it can cut your chances of getting sick by as much as 40 percent.

The vaccine works by introducing a harmless version of the flu virus to your bloodstream. Your body responds by producing antibodies that will be ready to go on the attack if the real flu virus ever shows up. Because it doesn't work immediately, you should get your shot early in the season. In most parts of the country, flu season runs from November through April, peaking between late December and early March. The influenza virus mutates quickly, and new strains show up each year. Even if you got a shot last year, you'll need another to protect you against this season's most common strains.

For the 2010-2011 flu season, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend vaccination for everyone 6 months and older. This is especially important for:

  • Children aged 6 months up to their 19th birthday
  • People 50 years old or above
  • Anyone who lives in a nursing or long-term care home, assisted living residence, or similar facility
  • Adults and children (6 months of age or older) who have chronic heart or lung conditions, including asthma
  • Adults and children (6 months of age or older) who need regular or follow-up treatment for a kidney, immune, blood, or metabolic disorder (like diabetes), and anyone else who lives in the same household
  • Children (6 months to 18 years) who are on long-term aspirin therapy, because a viral infection like the flu puts them at risk for Reye's syndrome
  • Pregnant women
  • Doctors, nurses, hospital or nursing home employees, home caregivers, and household members of people in high-risk groups

You can get a flu shot at your doctor's office, and some health plans cover the cost. Also, many pharmacies and employers offer low-cost inoculation (about $10), starting at the beginning of flu season.

Are there any risks?

Anyone over the age of 6 months can get the vaccine, with a few exceptions. One exception is people who are allergic to eggs. The vaccine uses viruses grown in hen's eggs and then inactivated (killed), so if you're severely allergic to eggs, check with your primary care doctor or allergist before you have a shot.

Also, check with your doctor if you've had a severe reaction to a flu shot in the past, or if you developed Guillain-Barre syndrome in the 6 weeks following your flu shot. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also says that if you have a moderate or severe illness with a fever, you should wait until your symptoms ease up before you get a flu shot.

About a third of all people who get the vaccine will feel sore at the injection spot. Although the vaccine cannot cause flu, up to 10 percent of recipients develop mild flu-like symptoms, including low fever, weakness, and sore muscles. These symptoms usually start 6 to 12 hours after receiving the vaccine and can last up to two days. But remember -- even if you do feel symptoms from a flu shot, they'll be much milder than actual flu symptoms.

Do I have any other options for avoiding the flu?

If shots bother you, ask your doctor if the nasal spray flu vaccine (FluMist) is right for you. This vaccine has been approved for people who are between the ages of 2 and 49, who are not pregnant and don't have any health issues. Other people who should not get FluMist include people with egg allergies, children under five with a history of wheezing.

You can also follow these tips to help you stay healthy:

  • The influenza virus spreads when infected people cough or sneeze, so avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after you cough, sneeze, or touch your eyes.
  • Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are great for killing germs when you're on the go; you may want to use them on stair rails, doorknobs, and grocery cart handles, among other things.
  • When someone in your house is sick, antibacterial wipes are good to use on surfaces in high-traffic areas, such as kitchens and bathrooms.
  • Don't touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. (You can spread germs from the mucus in your eyes and mouth this way.)
  • Cough or sneeze into a tissue, then throw it out immediately afterward. If you don't have a tissue handy, cough or sneeze into your elbow or sleeve. (Teach kids these techniques, too!)
  • Killing germs is one thing; staying healthy is another. Getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, exercising and eating lots of fruits and vegetables will help keep your body's immune system working at its peak.

References

Seasonal flu. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated Jan.14, 2011.

Notice to Readers: Expansion of use of live attenuated influenza vaccine (FluMist) to children aged 2-4 years and other FluMist Changes for the 2007-08 influenza season. MMWR, November 23, 2007. 56(46);1217-1219.

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