What is influenza?
Influenza, or flu, is a common contagious respiratory illness, caused by viruses that circulate mainly during the winter months. Flu season starts around October and runs through March, with the peak usually occurring from December to February. Flu infects the nose, throat and lungs and is responsible for up to 45 million illnesses annually, 810,000 hospitalizations and 61,000 deaths (www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/index.html, 2017-2018 season).
How can you prevent the flu?
Getting a flu vaccination is just one way to prevent flu infection. September and October are good times to get your flu shot, but anytime is beneficial.
Handwashing, social distancing, avoiding contact with sick people, and routine cleaning and disinfection of common objects and surfaces help to control the spread of flu, just like we have learned with COVID-19. See more tips at www.cdc.gov/flu/prevent/prevention.htm
What is in the flu vaccine?
Depending on the type of flu vaccine you receive, it will contain either 3 or 4 strains of killed or live attenuated (weakened) flu virus.
Other ingredients that may be present in the flu vaccine vary by manufacturer and type but can include egg protein, animal protein, preservatives, antibiotics, stabilizers and formaldehyde. There is only a small amount of these ingredients, but it is something to be aware of if you have allergies or sensitivities to any of these possible components.
What types of vaccines are most readily available?
Vaccines come in both injectable and inhaled versions, and with or without preservatives.
- Inactivated (killed) influenza vaccine is the common flu shot most adults and children will receive. It is available for ages 6 months and up.
- Live attenuated (weakened) vaccines are delivered via a nasal spray and are modified so the virus can only multiply at the cooler temperatures found in the nose and not in the warmer areas of the body. The spray is approved for use in non-pregnant individuals aged 2-49. Since this contains a live virus, there are limitations on who may qualify for this type of vaccine. See cdc.gov/flu/prevent/nasalspray.htm for a list of contraindications.
- High-dose vaccines are licensed for people 65 and older. They contain four times the amount of antigen or an additive that boosts the body’s immune response. This higher dose gives older people better protection against the flu.
Why does my young child need two doses of flu vaccine this season?
For all children under 9, the CDC recommends two doses of flu vaccine the first year that the child receives vaccine. Infants can be vaccinated starting at 6 months of age and will need a second vaccination one month later. This rule applies to any child from 6 months to 9 years old, but only in their first season of receiving flu vaccine.
Why do I need a flu shot each year?
The known circulating flu strains vary slightly each year due to genetic changes and regional variations in the virus. The strains selected for each year’s flu vaccine differ from year to year. Also, the protection you get from a single dose of flu vaccine declines over time.
Why does the flu vaccine work better some years than others?
Due to the time required to produce, deliver and distribute vaccine, scientists must predict early in the calendar year which flu strains are likely to be circulating in the fall. Some of that decision is based on which strains were seen the previous year. How well their predictions match the actual flu viruses for the season impacts the effectiveness of the vaccine. Even with a vaccine that is a good match, person to person differences in age and health status, timing of vaccine administration and type of flu vaccine received all contribute to the individual’s level of protection.
Can I get the flu from the vaccine?
No. All the vaccines given with a needle are killed viruses. The nasal spray vaccine contains a live virus that has been modified and cannot produce flu infection in the human body. There are other flu-like illnesses that cause similar symptoms during the flu season - the flu vaccine only prevents flu viruses. It is possible to contract flu if you were exposed before you received your vaccination or during the two-week interval after vaccination when your body is developing protection. This is another good reason to get vaccinated early in the season.
What are the side effects of a flu vaccination?
Soreness, redness, swelling or tenderness at the site of injection are possible side effects. Some individuals can get a low-grade fever (more common in infants and young children), headache and body aches as if they have a mild case of flu. This is the body’s immune system reacting to the injected vaccine. All these side effects are temporary and usually resolve in 1-2 days. For nasal spray vaccine, you can have a runny nose, sore throat, fever or cough. If these side effects occur, they are mild and short lived. In general, the most common reactions people have from flu vaccines are considerably less severe than the symptoms caused by the actual flu. (www.cdc.gov/flu/prevent/misconceptions.htm)
How much does a flu vaccine cost?
The cost varies by location, manufacturer and healthcare provider, but many insurance plans cover the cost of a flu vaccination in full as part of your annual preventative care benefit. Go to www.vaccinefinder.org to find a flu vaccine provider near you. There are also free flu clinics being held throughout our area this season if you are uninsured or underinsured. Click here for a list of Texas Health free flu clinics in Tarrant and Denton counties.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever to get your flu vaccination. It reduces the occurrence of flu-based respiratory illness and your risk of flu-related complications. If you do become ill, flu vaccine has been shown to reduce your symptoms, length of illness and the need for hospitalization. Overall, it reduces the burden on our healthcare system which is already strained because of COVID-19. If you have questions about whether a flu vaccine is right for you and which one you should request, consult your doctor or pharmacist for more information. This article has been written for educational purposes only and does not replace the need to seek your doctor’s advice.