Colder temperatures mean hot chocolate, winter boots, snuggles by the fireplace and, unfortunately, an increased risk of getting sick.
The flu season in the United States begins around October and can end as late as May the following year. During these months, the flu viruses are circulating at higher than normal levels. (1) Many of us simply shrug off the risk of flu as unimportant and the flu shot as unnecessary. Some people believe the shot causes the flu which is actually not true. (2) In reality, influenza is a very serious disease that can, and does, lead to hospitalization and sometimes death. Even healthy people can get sick and spread the flu to others.
Getting the flu shot is the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones. The 2016-2017 flu shot protects against 3-4 virus strains of the flu. It is recommended to get vaccinated by the end of October. (Oops! Get that shot asap.) Flu shots are approved for everyone 6 months of age and older. (3)
The 2016-2017 flu shot contains inactivated influenza (which means getting the flu from the flu shot is impossible) and preservative-free options are available for those who may be concerned about thimerosal. (4) (Thimerosal is an ethyl mercury-based preservative.) Flu shots are covered by insurance and can be given at your doctors’ office. They are also available at local pharmacies, like Walgreens.
Don’t have a primary care doctor or aren’t sure where to go? Here is a very helpful link that allows you to type in your zip code and find places near you that offer the vaccination. (This HealthMap Vaccination Finder was created by a team of researchers, epidemiologists, and software developers at Harvard affiliated Boston Children’s Hospital.)
What’s New This Flu Season?
There are a few new things to consider during the 2016-2017 flu season.
- Only injectable flu shots are recommended this season. (The 2015-2016 nasal spray did not protect as well as the injectable vaccination.) (5)
- The flu vaccination has been updated to match circulating viruses.
- The recommendations for vaccination of people with an egg allergy has been changed. (The current vaccination is approved for those with an egg allergy.) (6)
How To Protect Yourself From The Flu This Season
- Get your flu shot as soon as possible
- Encourage your loved ones to get vaccinated (share this article!)
- Stay away from sick people
- Wash your hands to reduce the spread of germs
- Cover your cough
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth
- If you are sick, stay home from work or school to prevent the spread of germs
- If you are sick, ask your doctor about prescription antivirals that can be used to treat influenza
Here are some common myths (debunked!) about the flu and vaccine
- The flu isn’t a serious disease.
Influenza (flu) is a very serious disease that can, and does, lead to hospitalization and sometimes death. The flu can affect your nose, throat, and lungs, and can lead to pneumonia. Pneumonia is a very serious infection of the lungs and the flu virus is the most common cause of viral pneumonia in adults.(7)
Each year about 200,000 people in the United States are hospitalized and about 36,000 people die due to complications from the flu. Most who die are 65 years of age or older but small children less than 2 years old are as likely as those over the age of 65 to have to go to the hospital because of the flu. Other high-risk groups include pregnant women, people with certain medical conditions (such as chronic heart, lung, liver, kidney, blood, or metabolic diseases – such as diabetes), and those with weakened immune systems.
While the flu is most likely to affect those in high-risk categories, it can affect anyone, of any age, and any health status. A ‘healthy person’ receiving the flu vaccination has protected both themselves and the high-risk people around them (like grandparents or nieces and nephews.)
- The flu shot can cause the flu.
The 2016-2017 flu shot contains inactivated virus. Inactivated means the virus is not infectious. The flu shot takes about two weeks to provide full immunity which means during that time you can still get sick. (This is why it’s important to get the flu shot as soon as possible.)
Many people experience mild side effects from the vaccination, like soreness at the injection site (can last 1-2 days), redness, tenderness, or swelling. Low-grade fever, headache, and muscle aches may also occur. This can be confused with the flu. These side effects are an immune response (not the flu) to the vaccination. An immune response is a good thing! It means your body is learning what strains to look out for and making immune memory cells that can fight off the flu during the flu season. (8)
While these side effects might be annoying, it’s easy to plan for and manage them appropriately. Get your flu shot on a day off from work or at the end of the workday. Take a mild pain reliever/fever reducer, hydrate, and head to bed.
- The preservatives and mercury in the flu shot are unsafe.
If you are concerned about preservatives in the vaccination, there are preservative-free options (this includes the ethyl mercury-based preservative.) Simply ask your doctor or pharmacist for the single-dose (preservative-free) option.
More importantly, many people wrongly associate the ethyl mercury-based preservative found in the vaccine with methylmercury. Methylmercury (metallic mercury found in dental fillings, coal, tuna, and thermometers) is considered toxic and accumulates in the body. Ethyl mercury (thimerosal found in vaccines) is not toxic, does not accumulate in the body, and is actively excreted from our bodies in less than a week. (9, 10) (The more you know! 🙂 )
- There are not enough studies that show the safety or effectiveness of the flu vaccine.
The flu shot has been administered for over 50 years and is one of the safest medical interventions to date. There is extensive research supporting the safety of flu vaccines.
Here is a list of studies on safety and effectiveness of the flu vaccination.
The flu shot is not perfect but when weighing the benefits and risks, it’s worth getting!
Even if you happen to get a strain of flu not protected against in the shot, you may not get as sick as you would have gotten without the vaccine. You also may be less likely to develop serious complications, like pneumonia.
By getting the shot, you’ve helped keep others safe from getting sick – including high risk loved ones and those who may become seriously ill or die from flu-related complications.
Have you gotten your flu shot? Comment below!
- Key Facts About Seasonal Flu Vaccine. (2016). Retrieved November 20, 2016, from http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/keyfacts.htm
Flu shot: Your best bet for avoiding influenza. (n.d.). Retrieved November 20, 2016, from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/flu/in-depth/flu-shots/ART-20048000
2016-2017 Influenza Season Reporting through the week. (n.d.). Retrieved November 20, 2016, from https://colorado.gov/pacific/sites/default/files/DC_ComDis-Influenza-Report_1.pdf
Thimerosal in Flu Vaccine. (2015). Retrieved November 20, 2016, from http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/vaccine/thimerosal.htm
ACIP votes down use of LAIV for 2016-2017 flu season. (2016). Retrieved November 20, 2016, from http://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2016/s0622-laiv-flu.html
Flu Vaccine and People with Egg Allergies. (2016). Retrieved November 20, 2016, from http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/vaccine/egg-allergies.htm
Learn About Pneumonia. (n.d.). Retrieved November 20, 2016, from http://www.lung.org/lung-health-and-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/pneumonia/learn-about-pneumonia.html
WHO | Vaccine immunology (general aspects of vaccination). (n.d.). Retrieved November 20, 2016, from http://www.who.int/immunization/documents/Elsevier_Vaccine_immunology/en/
WHO | Statement on thiomersal. (n.d.). Retrieved November 20, 2016, from http://www.who.int/vaccine_safety/committee/topics/thiomersal/statement_jul2006/en/
Thimerosal in Vaccines. (n.d.). Retrieved November 20, 2016, from http://www.fda.gov/BiologicsBloodVaccines/SafetyAvailability/VaccineSafety/UCM096228