With millions of doses of this year’s influenza vaccine due to become widely available within weeks, many are left wondering whether the flu shot is right for them. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), everyone older than 6 months of age should get the influenza vaccine as soon as it becomes available in your area, with rare exceptions.
Flu season in the U.S. has historically peaked around January and February, but can begin as early as October. Last year’s flu season was especially severe and deadly.
Aside from avoiding the discomfort that the flu can bring in the form of symptoms such as fever, cough, sore throat, and body aches, you could be avoiding death. Rarely, a bad case of the flu could weaken the immune system or lungs via pneumonia so much so that it leads to death. Flu-related deaths are hard to estimate, since the ultimate cause of death is infection or pneumonia, but the CDC estimates an average of 36,000 deaths a year a caused by the flu. Deaths due to the flu in children are better tracked, with 149 confirmed pediatric deaths last year.
The overwhelming majority of people who get the flu will have their symptoms resolve in a few days. Those most at risk for flu-related complications are people with weakened immune systems, such as seniors, pregnant women, children, people who travel abroad, and people with health conditions or disabilities. It’s extra important that these people get the flu shot.
Who shouldn’t get the vaccine? Aside from infants younger than six months of age, people with an egg allergy or allergic sensitivity to prior vaccines should not get the flu shot, since it’s created using egg products.
Influenza Vaccine Effectiveness And Safety
While the efficacy of the flu shot is debatable and flu seasons are hard to predict, the flu vaccine is one of the best ways to prevent getting the flu. Experts believe that the influenza virus can travel up to 6 feet away via droplets in the air, created when infected people speak, sneeze, or cough.
In preparation, vaccine manufacturers and public health officials are preparing 135-139 million doses for the 2013-2014 season. Each season’s flu vaccine is based on the most common strains circulating the season before. Despite the lag, research has shown that this method of creating vaccines based on previous seasons is effective.
"It's quite common for people to say they are not going to get the flu shot this year because they've heard it does not match the strain of flu going around," said Dr. Andrea Tricco, the lead author of one such study, told reporters. "However, we've found that individuals will be protected regardless of whether the flu strain is a match or not."
The flu vaccine is not totally effective against the flu. Generally, experts estimate that it is effective in 50-70 percent of people. Last year’s vaccine, fell in the low end of that range, with just over half of Americans becoming immune.
The flu vaccine can’t give you the flu. The vaccine can give you a sore arm and a low fever, however. Many people who believe that the flu shot gave them the flu were likely infected by another person just before or around the time they got the shot.
General Influenza Prevention Guidelines
While getting the flu shot is still the best protection available against coming down with the illness, there are other ways to stay healthy. The influenza virus is usually transmitted via droplets travelling through air, originating from an infected person’s cough or sneeze. Stay away from sick people if you can, and cover your own coughs and sneezes for the benefit of others.
Lastly, if you do end up coming down with the flu, do yourself and everyone else a favor by staying home if possible.
To find out where the influenza vaccine is available near you, use the Vaccine Locator.