October 5, 2016: Montefiore Nyack Hospital Director of Pharmacy, Daryl Schiller, PharmD, BCPS-AQ ID, discusses why you should get a flu shot. With flu season approaching, now is a good time to get your yearly flu shot. I recommend the influenza vaccine for everyone starting at age 6 months.
Getting the flu can be a miserable experience—causing fevers, chills and aches. Flu can lead to missed days of school or work. But for people in high-risk groups, influenza can be dangerous and even life-threatening. Those at highest risk from complications from the flu include:
- Children younger than 5, but especially children younger than 2 years old
- Adults 65 years of age and older
- Pregnant women and those who have recently given birth
- Residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities
- People who have medical conditions including asthma, chronic lung disease, heart disease diabetes, kidney or liver disorders, epilepsy, stroke
- People with a weakened immune system due to disease or medication, such as people with HIV or AIDS, or cancer
The most serious complication from the flu is pneumonia, which can be deadly. Pneumonia can cause fluid buildup and reduce oxygen supply to the lungs and other tissues in the body. This is especially a problem in high-risk groups such as the elderly and people with chronic medical conditions.
Types of Flu Shots
It’s important to get a flu shot every year, because each year’s vaccine is created based on the previous flu season’s circulating influenza strains. These can change from year to year. There are two types of injectable influenza vaccines: trivalent and quadrivalent. Trivalent vaccines have the three most common circulating flu strains from the previous season, while quadrivalent vaccines have the four most common strains. I personally prefer the quadrivalent vaccine because it provides an extra bit of coverage, but studies show both types of vaccines generally are about 60% effective most years.
There are also two ways the flu vaccine is administered. One is through the traditional shot, and the other is through a nasal vaccine, known as FluMist. Last year, the nasal vaccine had a low rate of effectiveness. Because of this, the committee that advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on immunization decided not to recommend the nasal spray flu vaccine for this flu season.
Can the Flu Shot Give You the Flu?
I often am asked whether the flu shot can give you the flu. The answer, simply, is no. The vaccine does not contain the actual virus. It has components of the virus, which cannot cause the flu. Sometimes people will tell me they once got a flu shot and then got sick, and they are convinced it was because of the vaccine. If you get sick after getting the flu shot, it’s a coincidence. It takes two to three weeks for your body to build up immunity to the flu from the shot, and during that period you may get sick from a virus you already had picked up.
What If You Get the Flu?
In most cases treating the flu is mostly a matter of managing your symptoms. There are antiviral medicines your doctor can provide for treating the flu, but they are only effective if taken in the first day or two after you get sick. Over-the-counter flu treatments contain fever reducers, antihistamines, decongestants, and cough medicines. They may help you feel better, but they won’t help you get better faster. If you have a high fever or you have trouble breathing—such as breathing quickly or having trouble catching your breath—see your doctor. If you are in a high-risk group and have had the flu and then your fever or cough comes back, you should also call your doctor, because you may be developing pneumonia.
Where to Get a Flu Shot
You can always make an appointment at your primary care physician’s office for a flu shot. Many local pharmacies also provide flu shots, without an appointment. In most cases, insurance will cover the cost of the vaccine. If you haven’t done so already, get your flu shot now. People go to work sick and they send their kids to school sick. Not everybody washes their hands when they sneeze. You can’t control the people around you, and you can’t rely on luck to stay healthy. The best thing you can do is to protect yourself.