Flu vaccines are available now for the 2021-2022 flu season! The Flu vaccine is recommended every year for everyone 6 months of age and older with only a few exceptions. Many of you have doubts and fears about the Flu Vaccine, especially given recent highly publicized debates over the COVID-19 vaccine. Here’s what you need to know.
Flu vaccines have been around for over 50 years, and there is a wealth of scientific and medical data to support their safety and benefits. Benefits of flu vaccines include:
- Preventing you from getting the Flu
- Reducing the severity of the Flu if you do get sick
- Decreasing the risk of hospitalization for the Flu
- Saving lives – especially for infants, the elderly and the chronically ill
Influenza is a serious illness that causes up to 50,000 deaths, 500,000 hospitalizations, and 40 million illnesses per year. The Flu results in an estimated 100 million days of missed work, amounting to $16 billion in lost earnings per year in the U.S.
As with COVID-19, there is no “cure” for the Flu – only supportive treatment. Some anti-viral medications can help to keep the virus from multiplying in the body if given early enough in the disease. Vulnerable patients – the very young and the elderly, as well as those with serious underlying health conditions (heart and lung disease and diabetes) – are more likely to have severe symptoms from the Flu and require hospitalization.
Flu vaccines work by exposing your immune system to an important piece of the flu virus, or a dead or weakened version of the virus. The immune system responds by producing antibodies. These antibodies are then primed to recognize and respond quickly to the real Flu virus if it enters your body. Without these circulating antibodies, your body takes longer to defend against the virus and is more susceptible to the many severe effects of the disease before it can mount a response.
Let’s dispel a few myths and misconceptions about the Flu vaccine:
Myth 1: The vaccine cannot give you the Flu. The vaccine is a single protein or group of proteins, or a dead version of the virus. Only the nasal spray vaccine contains a live virus, and that is a weakened or attenuated virus that cannot cause full-blown Flu. If you get sick immediately after the vaccine, you likely either have a different type of respiratory virus, are experiencing minor symptoms related to the vaccines immune-activating response, or were already exposed to the flu before you got the vaccine. Protection from the vaccine takes two weeks to develop.
Myth 2: It’s better to get the disease than the vaccine. The risks associated with Influenza are much greater than the risk of the vaccine. Severe side effects of the Flu vaccine occur in only 1 in a million people. Whereas, if you get the flu, your risk of hospitalization is 1 in 100 and your risk of death is 1 in 1,000. Not to mention, getting the flu means you will miss days of school or work, which could mean lost income and opportunities. Yes, your body might naturally be able to fight the Flu, but the process is longer, more uncomfortable and often more dangerous than the process of forming antibodies from the vaccine. Many people’s bodies are NOT able to fight off the Flu, and some will be devastated trying to do so.
Myth 3: Healthy people don’t need the vaccine. The Flu virus is always changing, and different strains affect different subsets of the population differently. Certain groups are always at more risk, and even seemingly healthy adults and children get sick, need hospitalization and die from the flu every year. Besides, even if you are healthy, if you get the Flu, you might pass the flu virus to someone vulnerable who works or lives with you.
Myth 4: I’ve had the flu before, so I am immune. As mentioned above, because the Flu virus varies so much from year to year, immunity is not guaranteed. You can get a different strain or a more virulent strain even if you’ve had the flu before.
Myth 5: It’s too late or too early to get the vaccine. The ideal time to be vaccinated is by the end of October – before the Flu starts to spread in your community. Remember that the vaccine takes two weeks to be effective. And it is never too late to be vaccinated – even in December and January.
People who should NOT get the flu vaccine without asking their physician include: people with moderate to severe illness with or without fever (you should wait till your recover to get vaccinated) and people with a history of Guillain-Barre Syndrome (a severe paralytic illness).
The Flu vaccine is safe for pregnant women in any trimester. Pregnant women are more likely to get severe Flu infections due to changes in the immune system, heart and lungs during pregnancy and up to two weeks postpartum. Influenza during pregnancy can also harm the developing baby. The vaccine can protect the baby even after birth because antibodies are passed to the baby during pregnancy. Pregnant women should NOT get the live attenuated vaccine.
Be sure to discuss any health conditions and allergies with your physician before receiving your vaccine. Shortly after you get the vaccine, you may have soreness and redness in your arm muscle, low-grade fever, body aches and fatigue. This means your body is responding to the vaccine by activating your immune system. Call your physician if you have any severe symptoms.
If you think you may have the Flu, call your physician. She/he may order a flu test for you. If you have only been sick for a day or two, you might be a candidate for a prescription anti-viral medication that can halt virus multiplication and decrease the duration and severity of the illness.
Dr. Ferry is a board certified Family Physician faculty member who sees patients of all ages and provides obstetrical services at Lone Star Family Health Center, a non-profit 501©3 Federally Qualified Health Center operating facilities in Conroe, Spring, Willis, Grangerland, and Huntsville, and serving as home to a fully integrated Family Medicine Residency Program to increase the number of Family Medicine physicians for Texas and our community.