Here’s Why You Just Might Get That Flu Shot Now
Surely, flu season hasn’t started yet. So why all the signs advertising flu shots at your local supermarket or drug store? Why are physicians offering them?
It’s true that flu season doesn’t start in earnest until around December, lasting through April or May, says Eric Sachinwalla, MD, medical director, Infection Prevention & Control, at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia. But there’s at least one good reason to take your doctor up on that offer.
“The answer I usually give people is that if this is going to be your only chance to get the flu shot, even if you get it now, then get it,” Sachinwalla says. “Because the evidence that we have shows that people still have some protection with antibodies in their system, even later in the season.”
You might be seeing your doctor now, he adds, but unless you see the doctor often, you might not return for a visit until well into flu season. So, Dr. Sachinwalla adds, it’s better to get the flu shot early than later or not at all.
Common Reason for Absenteeism from Work or School
Getting your flu shot might be one of the most important things you can do for your health—and for the health of those around you, particularly infants, people with low immune system defenses, and others.
Flu can be very serious indeed. For most of us, the flu is an inconvenience, but as inconveniences go, it’s one of the least pleasant. “Most people don’t require hospitalization but influenza is one of the most common reasons for absenteeism from work or school,” says Dr. Sachinwalla. “People are ill for quite a while. Most people who have influenza are sick for probably close to a week, and they’re quite miserable during that time.”
For some people—infants under 6 months (including preterm infants), the very old, and people who have preexisting conditions like breathing problems or immune system deficiencies—flu can lead to hospitalization, and worse. “Unfortunately,” he says, “I have seen people die of influenza.”
Unvaccinated pregnant women are also at high risk.
So if you aren’t inclined to get your flu shot for your own protection, think about those around you who might catch the flu from you. “You definitely want to do what you can to protect those groups,” Dr. Sachinwalla advises.
There are some people who should not get a flu shot, but it amounts to very few, such as people who have allergies to the vaccine or who have had past reactions to it. Even people who have egg or latex free allergies can get the flu shot as there are versions that are egg & latex free. “Other than that,” Dr. Sachinwalla says, “it’s safe. It’s not a live virus, so even people who have immune system problems are still safe to get it, and actually we should be making sure we’re giving it to those people to help protect them.”
Why Pregnant Women Need a Flu Shot
One particular version of the vaccine will not be around this season—a nasal mist that proved popular with shot-averse pediatric patients, especially. The mist proved not to be as effective, says Dr. Sachinwalla. It has been taken off the market.
Pregnant women should also get a flu shot. Some women might have heard about a recent study suggesting an association between the flu shot and a small risk of miscarriage, but, Dr. Sachinwalla says, it is just one study, and the research does not suggest that the flu shot actually causes miscarriage. It is definitely thought-provoking, he says, and he agrees with the research investigators that this association requires more study.
However, given the serious risks posed to unvaccinated pregnant women, the benefits of a flu shot far outweigh the potential risks. “Unfortunately, (unvaccinated) pregnant moms can have serious outcomes,” he says, “so I think it’s really important to try to protect them.”
How effective is the flu shot? It depends. Different strains of influenza virus circulate from year to year, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) base flu vaccine formulations on what they believe will be the predominant strains in the coming season. It’s never a perfect match—flu strains can mutate, for example—but the benefits of getting a flu shot are still clear. Last season, the vaccine proved to be about a 60 percent match with the strains of influenza then circulating.
Even if the match is not perfect, the shot is still protective. If you get the flu—and you still might, even if you’ve gotten a shot—the illness is likely to be less severe. But one thing is for sure, and you should bear it in mind, says Dr. Sachinwalla: “You definitely have less of a chance of getting the flu if you get the vaccine.”
One note for those who believe the flu vaccine actually causes the flu: It does not. “The intramuscular shot (the kind most people get) is not a live virus,” says Dr. Sachinwalla, so you can’t get the flu from the vaccine. You might get a low-grade fever and some aches, but that is just your body’s response to the vaccine. That’s normal. You might get another viral infection at around the same time, but you cannot get influenza from the intramuscular influenza vaccine.”
For more information on the flu, visit the CDC website: www.cdc.gov/flu