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Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy October 3, 2013 07:55 AM
It's now officially flu season...which means it's time to get your flu shot.
The "flu", or influenza, is an illness caused by one of the many influenza viruses. While for some people it might just feel like a bad cold, for many people it can be very serious. People with influenza have fever and cough, but they may also have a sore throat, runny nose, muscle aches, headache, vomiting or diarrhea. It can also totally wipe you out.
It's also possible to get complications from the flu, like pneumonia, sinusitis, ear infections or dehydration. If you have health problems like asthma, the flu can really make you sick. It's also particularly worrisome if you are very young (like less than 6 months) or very old. In fact, more than half of the hospitalizations for flu are usually in people who are older than 65.
This year there are a few different choices when it comes to vaccination. You might not find all of them at your doctor's office--and some aren't available for children--but it's good to know about them.
Usually, the vaccine protects against 3 types of influenza, the ones that scientists think are most likely to cause infections during the season (they are actually pretty good at predicting these things). This year, we have some vaccine that protects against 4 types, "quadrivalent" instead of "trivalent". That's pretty cool, although this is too new for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to recommend one over the other.
All the nasal spray flu vaccine, or LAIV (Live Attenuated Influenza Vaccine) is quadrivalent, so that's an added bonus to the spray (on top of not having to get a needle). Anyone who is generally healthy (no chronic health problems) and between the ages of 2 and 49 can get the nasal spray, as long as they aren't pregnant or have a lot of contact with someone with a severe problem with their immune system.
There are three other options this year too:
- A version made without using any eggs at all, for people with very severe egg allergies (people with milder allergies can generally get the flu vaccine--talk to your doctor). This one is only for adults 18-49, though.
- Also for grownups (18-64): a version that gets injected (with a smaller needle) into the skin instead of the muscle
- For people 65 and older, there is a higher dose version.
While the preservatives used in some flu vaccines are felt to be safe (and help keep the vaccines free of germs), there are preservative-free versions available. Talk to your doctor if this is a concern for you.
Anyone less than 9 years old getting the flu shot for the first time needs two doses at least a month apart. But it's just that first year; after that, it's one shot a year.
There are very few people who shouldn't get a flu shot. People who have had severe allergic reactions to it shouldn't, along with people who have a history of Guillain-Barre (if you haven't heard of it you probably haven't had it) or who are moderately sick on the day they are thinking of getting the shot. But basically everybody else over the age of 6 months can--and should.
Any medical treatment can have side effects, and the flu shot is no exception. The most common ones are soreness where the needle went in, muscle aches, fever, or feeling a bit sick for a day or two. The flu shot can't give you the flu, though. Sometimes people say that they got sick with the flu after the shot, or got sick more that season...but that's not because of the flu shot. We give the flu shot during cold and flu season, and it can take a couple of weeks to truly take effect. Sometimes, too, it doesn't work--while it offers good protection, it's not 100% effective. So it's possible to get the flu shot and still get sick--but that's not the flu shot's fault!
Remember, too, that this isn't just about your health. The more people who get the flu shot, the less flu there is generally--and that protects everyone.
Want to find out where to get a shot? Check out this great tool. And if you are curious about flu cases in your area, check out Flu Near You.
The CDC's Flu site has for all the info you need for flu season--and, as always, your doctor is your best resource.
Get vaccinated! Do it now, before we really get into the thick of things. That, along with washing your hands (and covering your coughs and sneezes with your elbow) can make all the difference when it comes to keeping you and your family healthy this winter.
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About MD MamaClaire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »
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