With the weather turning cold, and leaves turning color, the annual campaign to encourage everyone to receive a flu vaccine has begun in earnest.
Not simply a bad cold, influenza is a major health concern, with an estimate of 36,000 deaths in a typical year. Elderly, very young (less than 2 years old) and pregnant patients are at particular risk for developing flu-related complications, as are those with chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, COPD, AIDS and others.
A viral illness, influenza is spread by droplets created when infected people cough, sneeze for talk. These airborne particles can then be inhaled by others. Less commonly, a person may pick up the virus by touching a surface with such particles, and “self inoculating” by touching their own mouth or eyes.
It is important to note that patients may be able to spread the virus before they have developed symptoms. Common symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, muscle pains, headaches and fatigue. Although these symptoms overlap with that of a common cold, in general the flu is more severe and makes the patient feel systemically ill, as opposed to having symptoms limited to the nose and throat. However, absolute certainty requires laboratory testing.
Flu season commonly peaks mid winter, but it may begin as early as October. That is why it is recommended to get the vaccine now, before activity peaks (it takes approximately two weeks for the vaccine to achieve its peak protection).
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends everyone 6 months and older to receive the vaccination. Exceptions include people with a severe allergy to chicken eggs or previous flu vaccination, people with a history of Guillain-Barre Syndrome related to previous vaccination, and children less than 6 months of age.
There are many misconceptions about the flu shot. Most common is the concern that vaccination can cause the flu. This is not true; viruses in the vaccine are killed and cannot cause infection. Another false impression is that receiving the vaccine too early in the season will put you at risk later on; in actuality the best protective strategy is to be vaccinated as early as possible.
The traditional and most common vaccine is a “shot in the arm” which is approved for use in all populations. Last year a “hi-dose” vaccine was introduced for people 65 and older. Although there are theoretical reasons for this option to be more effective, there is no such scientific proof. Finally, a nasal spray option is available for healthy, non-pregnant patients age 2-49. This vaccine does not use dead virus, but rather weakened virus which stimulates antibody production in the nasal passage, but is too weak to survive in the lungs.
The decision for you and your family to be vaccinated is one of the most important annual health decisions you have to make. The evidence is pretty clear. Get vaccinated and protect yourself from influenza.
For information on the flu vaccine, visit the CDC’s website.