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National Influenza Vaccination Week is December 4-10

‘Tis the Season…for a Flu Shot

It’s here…that time of year when holiday shopping is in full swing, children are eager to visit Santa Claus, travel plans are being made, and savvy folks are getting flu shots. Wait, what? You think, “Isn’t it too late in the season for a flu shot?” Not at all!

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), influenza activity normally peaks in February, but can last until as late as May. It’s never too late for vaccination as long as the flu virus is circulating. This time of year, with family and friends gathering for holiday festivities, is actually a great time to get the flu vaccine and one of the best ways to protect yourself and those you love.

Some of you are still wary of the vaccine. So many misconceptions circulate each year, but they’re just not true. We’ll tell you exactly why in a moment. But, first…

Why do I need a shot every year?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that everyone over the age of six months receive a flu vaccine each year for the best protection. A new shot is needed each year because the flu virus is constantly changing—a new vaccine is formulated each year to best protect against the type of influenza viruses currently circulating. In addition, the protection from a vaccination declines over time so a yearly “update” is best. The vaccination takes approximately two weeks to take full effect so the earlier you get the shot, the better.

Some children may need two doses of flu vaccine this season to be fully protected, says the AAP. Children younger than nine years old getting vaccinated for the first time will need two doses. Some children who have received influenza vaccine previously also will need two doses of vaccine this season to be fully protected. Your healthcare provider can tell you if your child requires two doses.

This season, CDC recommends the use of injectable flu vaccines (flu shots) only and not the nasal spray flu vaccine. The nasal spray flu vaccine is not recommended for use this season because of concerns about effectiveness.

“We are looking into the situation with the hopes that the nasal spray flu vaccine will once again be an option for some people,” says Dr. Dan Jernigan, director of the Influenza Division at CDC. “In the meantime, this flu season, we recommend the flu shot and not the nasal spray flu vaccine.”

Who’s most at risk?

Most who get the flu will have mild illness, will not need medical care or antiviral drugs, and will recover in less than two weeks. Some, however, are more likely to experience flu complications that can result in hospitalization and even death. Pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus infections, and ear infections are examples of flu-related complications. The flu also can make chronic health problems worse. For example, those with asthma may experience asthma attacks while they have the flu and people with chronic congestive heart failure may experience a worsening of this condition.

Those most at risk include:

  • Children under the age of five—and especially those under the age of two–are at a high risk of complications from the flu.
  • Pregnant women (and women up to two weeks postpartum) can see changes in the immune system, heart, and lungs during pregnancy, making them more prone to severe illness from flu. Pregnant women with flu also have a greater chance for serious problems for their developing baby, including premature labor and delivery.
  • Those 65 years of age and older are at greater risk of serious complications from the flu compared with young, healthy adults because human immune defenses weaken with age. While flu seasons can vary in severity, during most seasons, people 65 years and older bear the greatest burden of severe flu disease.

Of note: In recent years, for example, the CDC estimates that those 65 and older have accounted for between 60 to 80% of seasonal flu-related deaths and 40 to 75% of seasonal flu-related hospitalizations.
Is the vaccine safe?
Despite the disparaging things you may have heard from acquaintances or well-meaning family members, millions of doses of influenza vaccine have been administered safely for decades. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) assures the vaccine is your best defense during any cold and flu season. A simple flu shot can reduce illnesses, doctor visits, and missed work and school, as well as prevent flu-related hospitalizations and deaths.

With the help of Harvard Medical School and Harvard Health Publications, let’s review the most common myths associated with the flu vaccine:

Myth #1: You can catch the flu from the vaccine.
The vaccine is made from an inactivated virus that can’t transmit infection. So people who get sick after receiving a flu vaccination were going to get sick anyway. It takes one to two weeks to gain protection from the vaccine, but most assume that because they got sick after getting the vaccine the shot caused their illness.
Myth #2: Healthy people don’t need to be vaccinated.
Anyone, even healthy people, can benefit from being vaccinated. It’s recommended for those who might spread the virus to others who are particularly susceptible. For this reason, health care workers are routinely advised to get the flu vaccination to protect their patients.
Myth #3: Getting the flu vaccination is all you need to protect yourself.
In addition to a vaccination, a number of steps are required to protect yourself during flu season. You should avoid contact with people who have the flu, wash your hands frequently, and consider taking anti-viral medications if you are exposed to the flu before being vaccinated.
Myth #4: The flu is just a bad cold.
Influenza may cause cold symptoms, like sore throat, runny nose, sneezing, hoarseness, and cough, but in the U.S. alone, 36,000 people die and more than 200,000 are hospitalized each year because of the flu.
Myth #5: You can’t spread the flu if you’re feeling well.
Actually, 20 to 30% of those carrying the influenza virus have no symptoms.
Myth #6: You don’t need a flu shot every year.
The influenza virus changes (mutates) each year. Getting vaccinated each year is important to make sure you have immunity to the strains most likely to cause an outbreak.
Myth #7: You can catch the flu from going out in cold weather without a coat, with wet hair, or by sitting near a drafty window.
The only way to catch the flu is by being exposed to the influenza virus. Flu season coincides with the cold weather so people often associate the flu with a cold, drafty environment, but they are not related.
Myth #8: If you have a high fever with the flu, and it lasts more than a day or two, antibiotics may be necessary.

Antibiotics work well against bacteria, but tare not effective for a viral infection like the flu. But, sometimes, you may develop a bacterial infection as a complication of the flu, so it may be a good idea to get checked out if your symptoms drag on or worsen.

As you can see, there’s really no excuse to avoid a flu shot this season.

How can I prevent the flu?

The influenza vaccine isn’t 100 percent effective, so it’s also important to take measures such as these to reduce the spread of infection:

  • Thorough and frequent hand-washing is an effective way to prevent many common infections. If soap and water aren’t available, use alcohol-based hand sanitizers.
  • Cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough. To avoid contaminating your hands, cough or sneeze into a tissue or into the inner crook of your elbow.
  • Flu spreads easily wherever people congregate—in child care centers, schools, office buildings, auditoriums, and on public transportation. By avoiding crowds during peak flu season, you reduce your chances of infection. And, if you’re sick, stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever subsides so you lessen your chance of infecting others.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. Germs are often spread when someone touches something contaminated with germs and then touches these areas of the face.
  • Clean and disinfect the surfaces you often touch at home or at work, especially when someone is ill.
  • Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage stress, eat nutritious food, and drink plenty of fluids.

If you haven’t done so already, make arrangements to get your annual flu shot. Call your doctor to schedule a time to swing by—it only takes a moment! Once vaccinated, you’ll be able to enjoy this holiday season knowing you have taken the single best step to protect yourself and your loved ones against the flu.

For more information about the influenza vaccination, contact one of Coastal Carolina Health Care’s family practices: CCHC New Bern Family Practice, at (252) 633-1678, or CCHC Twin Rivers Family Practice, at (252) 636-2664.

(Sources: American Academy of Pediatrics; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Harvard Medical School; and Mayo Clinic.)