The People’s Clinic: The flu vaccine and protecting yourself and your community
It’s that time of year again! We are now entering fall, and flu season, which can last from October to May, is upon us once again. Influenza, or the flu, is a potentially serious and extremely contagious viral illness that is largely preventable. Read on to learn more about the flu and how to protect yourself and your loved ones.
What are the symptoms of the flu?
The flu is caused by a virus and often starts very quickly, and may include the following symptoms:
- Fever (usually high)
- Tiredness (can be extreme)
- Body aches
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Diarrhea and vomiting
Having these symptoms does not always mean that you have the flu. Many different illnesses, including the common cold, can have similar symptoms.
How can the flu be treated?
If you think you have the flu, you should see your health care provider as soon as possible, because antiviral drugs can reduce the time you are sick and your symptoms if started within 48 hours. To take care of yourself if you have the flu you should also:
- Stay home and rest
- Drink plenty of liquids
- Use over the counter medicines to help with symptoms
What is the flu vaccine and how is it given?
The flu vaccine is an inactivated or dead virus that helps our bodies develop antibodies to protect us against the flu virus. The injectable version, or “flu shot,” is an inactivated vaccine, a virus that has been killed so it can’t cause the flu. An intranasal (nasal spray) form of the vaccine is also available and has been proven to be just as effective. This nasal spray is an attenuated virus, which means it is a weakened virus that has been altered so it can’t cause the flu.
What are the most common myths that exist about the Flu Vaccine?
Myth 1: You would be surprised how many people still believe the flu vaccination can actually cause them to get the flu. This is absolutely not true! Our modern vaccines are developed from viruses that have either been killed or inactivated so they cannot make you sick. Once immunized, our bodies develop antibodies that fight off the infection. There is still a chance that a person can get the flu before their immune system is activated, which may take up to two weeks. Both the nasal spray and the injection (shot) have been shown to prevent the flu effectively.
Myth 2:, “Since I was vaccinated last year, I don’t have to be vaccinated again.” This statement is also false. The influenza viruses change (mutate) their outer coating frequently. They can thereby evade our human defenses, requiring that we be vaccinated each year to have protection against the current strain(s).
Who should get a flu vaccine?
The flu vaccine is recommended for people over 6 months of age, both healthy and with chronic medical conditions. It is strongly recommended for those who have a chronic medical condition; those over 65 years of age, (especially if they live in a nursing home or other area that houses people with chronic medical conditions); those with heart conditions or conditions that can compromise respiratory (breathing) function, such as a brain injury, asthma, or a seizure disorder; children (especially those aged 6 to 23 months of age); pregnant women; those with a weakened immune system (including those with HIV/AIDS); and caregivers and healthcare providers.
However, everyone can get the flu, and everyone should receive the vaccine, unless you are allergic or have other medical conditions as a result of which you should not receive the flu vaccine. People should NOT take it if they:
- Are severely allergic to chicken eggs;
- Have had a severe reaction to the flu vaccine in the past, including Guillain-Barré Syndrome;
- Are under 6 months of age; or
- Have an illness with a fever (wait until the symptoms subside before receiving the vaccine).
Like any medication, the flu vaccine can cause side effects. The most common are mild symptoms that may develop soon after the vaccine is given and generally last for 1-2 days. Side effects may include redness or swelling near site of injection, low-grade fever and/or muscle aches. Severe, life-threatening allergic reactions are extremely rare. Overall, the potential benefits far outweigh the risks.
If you have any questions about the flu vaccine, or whether or not you or a family can receive it, or if your community will be offering any free/low cost flu vaccine clinics, you should talk to your health care provider or your local health department.
Do you need further information, support or have questions or comments, about this article? Please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s flu information website at www.FLU.gov or call toll-free 800-CDC-INFO (800-232-4636). For information about the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity, please visit: http://www.wakehealth.edu/MACHE.