By Ernst Lamothe Jr.
It’s that time again. Getting an annual flu vaccine is the first and best way to protect yourself and your family from influenza virus. Flu vaccination can reduce flu illnesses, doctors’ visits and missed work and school due to flu, as well as prevent flu-related hospitalizations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The more people who get vaccinated, the more people will be protected from flu, including older people, very young children, pregnant women and people with certain health conditions who are more vulnerable to serious flu complications.
Cynthia Rand, pediatrician at UR Medicine’s Golisano Children’s Hospital in Rochester, answers six frequently asked questions about flu and vaccine season.
1 How serious is influenza, or ‘the flu’?
About 20,000 children under age 5 are hospitalized due to flu each year. On average, nearly 100 children die in the U.S. from flu and its complications each year. “The flu is one of the leading causes of infectious disease hospitalization among young children,” said Rand.
It is also an illness that can spread pretty rapidly.
“People who are carrying flu virus can spread it before, during and after feeling sick. They spread flu virus to people up to six feet away when they talk, cough or sneeze. Flu viruses can live on moist surfaces for up to three days,” said Rand.
2 Who should get the flu vaccine and how often?
Everyone aged 6 months and older should get a flu vaccine every year. Young children have the highest rate of infection due to flu. However, it’s especially important for people 65 and older, anyone who has a chronic condition such as lung or heart disease, diabetes, cancer or HIV infection, pregnant women, people on immunosuppressive drugs and healthcare workers.
“The virus strains can change each season, and immunity declines over time, which is why you need a new vaccine each year,” said Rand.
3 Should I get the flu shot if I’m pregnant?
Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding are encouraged to be vaccinated. Flu is more likely to cause severe illness in pregnant women than in healthy women who are not pregnant. Changes in the immune system, heart and lungs during pregnancy make pregnant women, and women who have given birth during the previous two weeks, more prone to severe illness from flu, including illness resulting in hospitalization.
That is one of the many reasons why pregnant women should get the flu shot. In addition, studies have shown that vaccinating a pregnant woman also can protect a baby after birth from flu. In this way, mom passes antibodies on to her developing baby that will protect against flu for the first several months after birth.
“Women can safely receive the flu vaccine at any point during pregnancy, and are of special concern because of the high risk of complications from flu,” said Rand.
The most common side effects experienced by pregnant women are the same as those experienced by other people. They are generally mild and include: soreness, redness, or swelling from the shot; fainting; headache; fever; muscle aches; nausea; and fatigue
4 My kids preferred the nasal spray vaccine. Can they still get that one?
Unfortunately, the nasal spray was not very effective at preventing flu, so this form of the vaccine is no longer recommended. Just recently a CDC advisory committee said nasal spray should not be used for the 2017-2018 flu season.
“In fact, last flu season the nasal flu vaccine had no protective benefit for children ages 2 to 17,” added Rand. “Children who got a flu shot were 63 percent less likely to catch the flu than people who weren’t vaccinated.”
5 When is the best time to get vaccinated?
It is recommended to get vaccinated as soon as vaccine becomes available. The virus tends to spread from October to May, with most cases occurring in January and February. However, vaccinations can be given at any time during the flu season — even getting a vaccination later in the season December through March can still help protect you from influenza.
6 How else can I protect myself from the flu?
The same way you protect yourself from the common cold. “Remember to wash your hands often, stay home if you don’t feel well, avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth, cough into your elbow and clean and disinfect surfaces at home, work, or school, especially when someone is sick.”