Every year, influenza strikes 5 percent to 20 percent of the U.S. population, typically between November and March. Most people recover, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 200,000 Americans are hospitalized and 36,000 die each year from flu-related complications, such as pneumonia.
The best way to protect against the flu is by getting vaccinated each year, according to the CDC. Yet, only 16 percent of adults under age 50 get the vaccine, as do just 33 percent of those ages 50 to 64.
Karen Spring, 35, a writer and stay-at-home mom from Westville, N.J. (pop. 4,500), is typical. She made sure her 5-year-old twins got a flu shot, but skipped it herself. “First off, I hate needles,” she says. “Also, I know the flu can be deadly for certain groups of people, but as a healthy adult, I feel that I really don’t need one.” So, should you get a flu shot? Here’s what you need to know about influenza, and the pros and cons of the flu vaccine.
A shot in the arm
Influenza is more than a bad cold or the “stomach flu.” It’s a viral respiratory illness characterized by fever, extreme tiredness, achy muscles, dry cough, headache, sore throat, and a runny or stuffy nose. Possible complications include pneumonia and worsening of chronic medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma or diabetes.
Two types of flu vaccine are available. The flu shot, which contains inactive influenza virus, is approved for use by everyone except babies under age 6 months. The vaccine also can be administered via a nasal spray, which contains weakened live virus. The nasal spray is approved for use by healthy individuals between ages 2 and 49, with the exception of pregnant women.
Building an immunity
Both the flu shot and nasal spray vaccine work by causing the body to develop antibodies against three specific strains of flu virus. It takes about two weeks to build immunity against the virus, so you can still catch the flu during this period. While the vaccine is designed to protect against the types of flu most likely to spread during a given flu season, you’re still vulnerable to other strains.
When scientists correctly match the vaccine strains to the circulating virus strains, the vaccine reduces the chance of getting the flu by 70 percent to 90 percent in healthy adults. Although the vaccine may be somewhat less effective in the old and the young, it still can help prevent serious complications.
Because vaccines are developed for each flu season, you need to get vaccinated annually. It’s best done in the fall before flu season starts, but later can still be helpful. “Most flu seasons don’t peak until February, so why stop vaccinating in November?” says Dr. Carol Baker, a Houston pediatrician and president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.
Possible side effects of the flu shot include soreness, redness or swelling at the injection site, as well as mild fever or body aches. The nasal spray can cause temporary flu-like symptoms. Serious side effects are rare. But to be safe, talk to your doctor before getting a flu shot if you have ever had a severe allergic reaction to eggs or a previous flu shot, or if you have a history of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare nervous system disorder.
The flu and you
“The flu is a serious and potentially deadly disease, and it spreads very easily,” Baker says. “Anyone wishing to protect themselves from the flu should get the vaccine.” According to the CDC, the vaccine is especially important for:
- Young children from age 6 months until their fifth birthday
- Pregnant women
- Adults ages 50 and older
- People of any age with chronic medical conditions, including heart disease, asthma or diabetes
- People who live in nursing homes
- Those who live with or care for people in the above groups, including health care workers
- Those who live with or care for babies under 6 months old, who are too young to be vaccinated
What about people who don’t fall into any of these groups? “It’s an individual decision,” says Dr. Steven Woloshin, a physician-researcher at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction, Vt. (pop. 2,569). He notes that 90 percent of flu deaths occur in people 65 and older. “For low-risk people, there probably isn’t a bad choice,” Woloshin says. “It’s really a decision that’s based on trying to avoid some suffering or the chance of infecting other people.”