Fight the Flu Before You Get It
By Laura Korin, MD, MPH
HEALTH– There were nearly 80,000 deaths and 960,000 hospitalizations due to influenza in the United States last year, making it one of the worst influenza seasons in years. The best protection is yearly influenza vaccination, but too few people receive this important vaccine.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only 37% of adults and 58% of children ages 6 months and older were vaccinated last year.
Influenza, the “flu,”is a contagious respiratory infection caused by a virus. It spreads easily through droplets from flu infected people when they cough, sneeze, or talk, and can spread to others up to 6 feet away. These droplets can directly infect you by landing in your mouth or nose or if you touch a surface that has flu virus on it and then touch your mouth or nose.
The flu virus can live 24 hours or longer on certain surfaces. While strategies such as hand-washing and avoiding people who are sick are important, they are not enough to prevent infection with the flu.
Certain people are more vulnerable to becoming infected and developing serious complications from the infection. This includes people 65 years and older, people with chronic medical diseases (such as asthma and diabetes, among others), pregnant women, and children younger than 5 years.
However, even healthy people can get the flu and develop these serious complications. The vaccine not only protects you but others around you as well, which is important for those who cannot receive the vaccine.
Studies have shown that pregnant women should receive the vaccine not only to protect themselves but also because it protects their babies for several months after birth.
Those who cannot be vaccinated are those who are younger than six months, have medical contraindications, such as an impaired immune system, or those with severe, life-threatening allergies to flu vaccine or any ingredient in the vaccine (such as gelatin). Those who have an egg allergy can still get the vaccine. Even if the egg allergy is severe, it can still be given in a supervised medical setting with a health care professional who can recognize and treat severe allergic reactions.
There are several misconceptions about the vaccine:
The vaccine does not cause the flu.
The vaccines either contain inactivated virus which are not infectious or a particle that looks like the virus. The nasal spray flu vaccine is the only vaccine type that has the live virus, but the virus is weakened.
Any of the vaccines may cause mild flu-like symptoms, but these do not compare to the symptoms and consequences of the actual flu virus infection.
For those who do get the flu soon after receiving the vaccine, it is likely because the vaccine was not yet effective. It takes 10 to 14 days for the body to develop the antibodies that fight the flu virus.
The vaccine does not work.
The vaccine effectiveness varies from year to year. The flu viruses mutate frequently. Health officials design the flu vaccine early each year based on predictions on which strains will be common in the coming season.
Sometimes their predictions do not match well or the flu virus strains mutate further. However, the flu vaccine is still a powerful tool in preventing infection and reducing the severity of illness in those who get the flu infection. In a CDC study of the 2016-2017 influenza season, the flu vaccine prevented an estimated 5.3 million illnesses, 2.6 million visits and 85,000 hospitalizations.
The vaccine is not safe.
Severe allergic reactions are very rare. Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare disorder where nerve cells are damaged by the body’s immune system, is more common after flu infection than flu vaccination.
It is not too late to get the flu vaccine. While the earlier you get vaccinated, the better protection you will have. There are different types of vaccines available depending on your age and medical conditions and should be discussed with a health care provider.
-Laura Korin, MD, MPH, is the director of Montefiore Health System’s Preventive Medicine Residency Program and an assistant professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the department of Family & Social Medicine