It might seem like only yesterday your kids were starting school, but if you’re already looking ahead to Halloween, the holiday season and Thanksgiving travel plans, you should also begin preparing for flu season.
Although flu season varies depending on location and the virus strains encountered, it usually begins around here in October, peaks between December and February and ends as late as May.
The influenza vaccine is administered by injection, though there is an FDA-approved nasal spray available. In recent seasons, the nasal spray has been less effective, leading the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to stop recommending this option.
There is no federal or state mandate for the flu shot and students are not required to have the flu shot to attend school, but last year 80,000 deaths in the US were attributed to the severe flu season we faced.
Who should get the vaccine?
Millions of Americans contract the flu each year, leading the CDC to release recommendations for widespread vaccination.
The CDC recommends that every person over six months of age get the vaccine; however, specific at-risk groups deserve special attention.
Children between the ages of 6 months and 4 years, people over the age of 50, those with chronic illnesses and pregnant women, among others, are especially vulnerable to the flu and should receive the vaccine early. Children under age eight, may need a second dose about four weeks after receiving the first.
However, you shouldn’t get vaccinated if you’ve ever had Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS) or are dealing with active cold or flu symptoms.
There were once contraindications for those with an egg allergy, but the CDC has lifted that warning unless your allergy is particularly severe.
After receiving the shot, it can take up to two weeks to build up your immunity, which is why it’s so important to get the vaccine early. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get it at any point in the season. Better late than never!
Does it work?
Formulating vaccines isn’t a perfect science. Even if the statistical effectiveness of the medication fluctuates year after year, the public profits from “herd immunity”—the concept that a community will have a higher level of resistance to the flu if the majority of people get vaccinated. Plus, there’s no need to worry that the vaccine will give you the flu. It may briefly cause flu-like symptoms while you build up an immunity, but the only way you can contract the flu after receiving the vaccine is if you were exposed before the end of the two-week incubation period.
If a vaccine isn’t a perfect match to the strain, it can still boost your immune system, reducing the severity of the flu. It will shorten your sickness and potentially save a vulnerable neighbor.
This is the same reason you should receive an updated vaccine every year: influenza is a rapidly evolving virus that will adapt to the previous year’s vaccine. The influenza virus is cyclical. Some years are very bad and others less severe. But the 2018-2019 vaccine will be targeted to the virus strains that experts believe most likely to cause trouble strain, and it will hopefully slow the spread of the flu and reduce its severity for our upcoming season.
However, if you are unable to get the flu vaccine, there are some steps you can take to avoid the virus. Influenza is airborne, which means we contract the virus by breathing it in or swallowing it. Frequent hand washing—especially after coughing or sneezing and before meals—provides a good defense, as even adults often put their hands in their mouth. Covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze and avoiding close contact will also slow the spread of the virus. Eat well, sleep enough, exercise, stay hydrated…all these basic hygiene habits are effective in keeping your resistance up as well.
Dr. Alfred Casale, a cardiothoracic surgeon, is Associate Chief Medical Officer for Geisinger Health and Chair of the Geisinger Cardiac Institute. Readers may write to him via [email protected]