In honor of the release today of Contagion, a film the New York Times reviewed in a piece called ‘A Nightmare Pox on Your Civilized World‘, we thought it a great time to talk about your annual flu shot. It seems fitting, don’t you think?
This year’s flu shot will not only protect against the pandemic H1N1 flu (swine flu) virus, it will also offer protection against two other influenza viruses that are expected to pay us a visit this fall and winter. Influenza is not a cold; it is a respiratory infection that can cause very serious, sometimes fatal, complications, particularly among the young and the elderly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone 6 months of age or older be vaccinated. A flu shot is the most effective way to prevent influenza and its potentially dangerous complications.
You and your flu shot: some basics
When is this year’s flu vaccine available? Shipment of the 2011-12 vaccine started in August 2011 and is expected to continue through October. Each year’s seasonal flu vaccine is usually available by late summer or early fall, before the start of the flu season. After a flu shot, it takes about two weeks to build immunity. You can benefit from the shot even if you don’t receive it until the start of the season.
I got a shot last year. Do I need another one? Yes. New flu vaccines are introduced each year. Keep in mind that flu viruses evolve very quickly – last year’s vaccine may not offer any protection against this year’s viruses. Once you are vaccinated, your immune system produces antibodies that will protect you from the vaccine viruses. After about six months or so, however, the antibody levels decline considerably, which is another reason to get a flu shot every year.
Who should get a flu shot? We already noted that the CDC recommends that everyone age 6 months or older be vaccinated. It is also particularly important for those at high risk of flu complications, including:
- Pregnant women
- Young children
- Older adults
- Have had a fever that day
- Are allergic to chicken eggs
- Have had a bad reaction to the vaccine in the past
- Cerebral palsy
- Cystic fibrosis
- COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
- Kidney or liver disease
- Muscular dystrophy
- Sickle cell disease
- Nasal spray: The nasal spray vaccine (FluMist) contains a low dose of live, weakened flu viruses. The spray does not cause the flu but prompts an immune response in your nose and upper airways as well as the rest of your body.
- The shot: A flu shot, usually given in the arm, contains an inactivated vaccine made of killed virus. The shot will not cause you to get the flu but it will prompt your system to develop the antibodies it needs to ward off flu viruses.
- Since it’s administered through a spray, you won’t need to face a needle.
- Is approved for healthy individuals ages 2 to 49.
- Contains weakened live viruses that will not give you the flu; in very rare cases, however, it can be transmitted to others.
- Is appropriate only to nonpregnant healthy people. It is not given to those with chronic medical conditions, suppressed immune systems or to children and adolescents on aspirin therapy.
- Is administered through a needle.
- Is approved for use in people 6 months of age and older
- Contains killed viruses – you cannot pass the flu along to anyone else.
- Can be used in those at increased risk of flu complication, including those with chronic medical conditions and pregnant women.
- Reaction to the vaccine: The regular flu shot causes some people to experience achy muscles and a fever a day to two after receiving the injection. This is probably a side effect of the body’s production of protective antibodies. The nasal spray can cause runny nose, headache and a scratchy throat.
- Mismatched flu viruses: Your flu shot will not protect you if the flu viruses used for the vaccine do not match the viruses present during that year’s flu season.
- The two-week window: Since it takes about fourteen days for a flu shot to take full effect, you might possibly catch the flu if you are exposed to the influenza virus just before or during that time period.
- Other illnesses: Remember that many other diseases, including the common cold, produce flu-like symptoms. You may very well have something other than the flu you believe you have.
- Wash your hands, thoroughly and often, with soap and water.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth whenever possible.
- Use an alcohol-based sanitizer on your hands.
- When flu is on the rise in your area, avoid crowds.