By: Fatema Meah, MD (Peconic Pediatrics, Riverhead & Southold, NY)
Back to school time is the right time to think about getting this year’s flu vaccine. In general, flu season runs from October until April, and most cases are seen in the winter months. The peak of influenza disease in the Northeast is typically in February but varies every season. It is ideal to get your flu shot early in flu season.
Why should you get the flu vaccine? Influenza, or “the flu”, affects between 5 – 20% of our population. It is responsible for 200,000 hospital admissions and 36,000 deaths each year. Last year was especially severe with over 180 pediatric deaths and over 700,000 hospitalizations for flu-related illnesses. These are the highest numbers recorded since surveillance began. Influenza is the most common vaccine-preventable illness we see!
What is Influenza? Influenza is a respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. There are two main types of virus: influenza A and influenza B. Each type includes many different strains, which tend to change each year. This is why flu shots must be given every year.
Influenza is extremely contagious and is easily transmitted through contact with droplets from the nose and throat of an infected person during coughing and sneezing. These viruses may also be spread when a person touches these droplets on another person or an object and then touches their own mouth or nose (or someone else’s mouth or nose) before washing their hands.
If you have ever had “the flu” you know it is no fun. Symptoms may include high fever, body aches, headache, dry cough, sore throat, and extreme fatigue. Stomach symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea can occur and are much more common in children than in adults.
Although anyone can get the flu, there are some groups that are at high risk for complications. The high-risk groups include:
- Adults 50 and older, especially those 65 and older;
- Children 6 months – 18 years;
- People age 6 months and older with chronic medical conditions, including heart disease, pulmonary disorders (including asthma), diabetes, kidney disease, hemoglobinopathies, and compromised immune systems (HIV or immunosuppressive therapy);
- People with certain conditions (such as neuromuscular disorders) that can cause breathing problems
- Pregnant women
- Residents of nursing homes and chronic-care facilities
Other individuals are at high risk of transmitting the flu. These include:
- Health care workers involved in direct patient care;
- Out-of-home caregivers and household contacts of children aged < 6 months.
There are 2 vaccines available to prevent influenza. The first is the “flu shot”— an inactivated vaccine containing a killed virus. The flu shot is approved for use in people older than 6 months, including healthy people, people with chronic medical conditions and pregnant women. The second is the nasal-spray flu vaccine— a vaccine made with live, weakened flu viruses. It is approved for use in healthy people 2-49 years of age.
This year there is some controversy about which vaccine is best. What is important is that you get one of them. If your child absolutely hates needles and will cause chaos for you getting “the shot” then opt for the nasal spray. What is most important overall is to be immunized and protected!
There are two common myths associated with the flu vaccine. The first is that the vaccine will give you the flu. It is not possible to get the flu from the flu vaccine! Side effects of the flu shot do include soreness, redness or swelling at the site of the injection, low-grade fever, and mild body aches. This is not the flu but your body’s response to the vaccine. Side effects of the nasal flu vaccine in children can include runny nose, cough, wheezing, headache, vomiting, muscle aches, and fever. In adults, side effects can include runny nose, headache, sore throat, and cough. The second myth is that the vaccine does not work. In years when the vaccine and circulating influenza viruses are well matched, the flu vaccine can be expected to reduce laboratory-confirmed influenza by 70 – 90%. In years when the viruses are not as well matched it will still lower incidence of disease as well as reduce severity in those who do get influenza. We must remember that not all flu-like illnesses are influenza, and the flu shot can only protect us against influenza viruses.
So is it time for your flu vaccine? Yes, the flu vaccine is now routinely recommended for everyone. That means babies over six months of age, children, and all adults including pregnant women. It takes about two weeks for your body to make a response to the vaccine. Call your doctor’s office to make an appointment today!