Every September when we think about “back to school” season, we should also think about another season just around the corner - flu season. Many people shrug off getting vaccinated against the flu with a variety of excuses like: “I never get the flu”, “the flu is just like a bad cold” or “I’d rather get the flu than get a flu shot which GIVES me the flu”. So, let’s dispel some of these misconceptions.
How Dangerous is Influenza?
The flu is not just another cold. In addition to making you feel absolutely miserable for days with fever, congestion, cough and body aches, it is far more dangerous than the common cold or other circulating upper respiratory infections. Each year approximately 200,000 people in the U.S. are hospitalized due to influenza, and up to 49,000 die. Compare that to the annual mortality from breast cancer (~40,000) or AIDS (~19,000) in the United States. Although morbidity and mortality are generally highest among young children and adults over age 65, last year, 60% of hospitalizations occurred among adults between the ages of 18 and 64 – those who had vaccination rates of only 37%.
When is Flu Season?
Flu seasons are unpredictable and vary from year to year in terms of timing, severity, and length. Although influenza activity most commonly peaks in the U.S. between December and February, some years have seen cases begin as early as October and continue as late as May.
How is Flu Spread?
Influenza is spread by droplets up to 6 feet away through coughing, sneezing or talking. You can also get the flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching your mouth or nose. Most people know they can get the flu from patients and coworkers who are sick, but don’t realize they can spread it to others even if they don’t feel sick. Most healthy adults can infect others beginning 1 day before symptoms develop and up to 5 to 7 days after becoming sick. Approximately 20% to 30% of people carrying the influenza virus have no symptoms.
Who Should Get Vaccinated?
CDC recommends a yearly flu vaccine(http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/vaccine/index.htm) for everyone 6 months of age and older, preferably by October, since it takes about two weeks after vaccination for an immune response to develop.
Individuals at particularly high risk for influenza include:
• Children younger than 5 (especially those younger than 2 years of age)
•Adults 65 and older
•People with chronic health issues like asthma, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and HIV/AIDS.
Dispelling the Myths
“The flu vaccine can give you the flu”
Injectable flu vaccines contain inactivated, non-infectious virus particles. Although the nasal spray vaccine does contains live flu virus, it is attenuated (weakened) in such a way to be able to stimulate immunity without causing illness. People not only mistake the side effects of the vaccine for the flu but also erroneously attribute illness with other unrelated cold viruses to the flu.
“I can take antibiotics if I get the flu”
Antibiotics only treat bacterial infections – not the influenza virus. Although there are antiviral medications against the flu, to be effective in reducing the duration and severity of illness, they must be taken within 48 hours of the beginning of symptoms.
Influenza viruses are constantly changing (mutating), so each year flu vaccines are updated to protect against the most common circulating viruses. Although protection from the vaccine decreases over time, protection typically lasts about a year.
“Pregnant women should not get a flu shot”
Pregnant women and their offspring are at very high risk for complications from the flu. Pregnant women are 7 times more likely to be hospitalized than non-pregnant women and account for 5% of all flu-related deaths. All pregnant women should to be vaccinated with inactivated flu vaccine.
“Getting the flu vaccination is all I need to do to protect myself from the flu.”
Besides vaccination, avoid contact with people who have the flu and wash your hands frequently!
By getting vaccinated and practicing good personal hygiene, you not only help to protect yourself, but your family, friends and patients.