It's that time of year again. Yes, influenza season is upon us and for some people that might mean it's time to consider getting vaccinated against the disease the Center for Disease Control estimates kills anywhere from 3,000 to 49,000 individuals each year.
The CDC says it's difficult to estimate the number of flu-related deaths because many times influenza aggravates an existing condition and death certificates will often list that as the cause of death.
Dr. Jeffrey Frost, infection prevention and control medical advisor for the Catholic Health System, acknowledges that some people might have anxiety about getting vaccinated, but said everyone should get the flu shot to avoid getting sick. Frost's recommendations, along with some guidelines put forth by the CDC, might be able to help you decide if getting the vaccine is right for you and your family.
Who should get vaccinated
As of February 2010, the CDC recommends everyone six months old and older get the vaccine each year. There are some people who are more at risk to suffer from complications of the flu: pregnant women, children younger than 5 years old, people more than 50 years old, people of any age with chronic medical conditions, people who live in long-term care facilities and those who care for persons at high risk. These people especially should get vaccinated against the virus, the CDC says.
Some people, however, should consult their physician before getting the shot: people allergic to chicken eggs, people who have previously had a severe reaction to an influenza vaccine, children younger than 6 months old, people who are already ill with a fever and people with a history of Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
What kind of vaccinations are available?
The CDC has approved three different flu shots and one nasal-spray vaccine. The most widely available, according to Frost, is the standard flu shot, which is injected into the muscle. A high-dose intramuscular version is available, recommended for people 65 and older who have weaker immune defenses.
An intradermal shot has been approved for the first time this flu season. This shot, which is injected just under the skin, utilizes a smaller needle and requires fewer antigens to be effective. This method is recommended for people ages 18 to 64.
The live attenuated influenza vaccine can be administered to healthy people between the ages of 2 and 50 through a spray inhaled through the nose. Unlike the shot, this vaccine contains weakened live strains of the virus which, when administered, cause the patient to develop antibodies.
Will getting the vaccination give me the flu?
"I tell people that they're not going to get the flu from the vaccine because when they get the intramuscular shot they're not being injected with the virus," Frost said.
These people are only being injected with flu antibodies and therefore are not actually infected with the disease as many people believe.
The nasal spray vaccine does contain live strains of the virus, however they are weakened and cannot cause illness, the CDC says.
According to the CDC, the side effects for the shot versions of the flu vaccine include soreness, redness or swelling at injection site, low-grade fever and aches.
"In my experience, the only complaints I've ever gotten are arm soreness that maybe last a day or two," Frost said.
The nasal spray can cause runny nose, headache, sore throat and cough in adults, and runny nose, wheezing, headache, vomiting, muscle aches and fever in children.
Do I need to get a separate vaccine to cover H1N1 (swine flu)?
Frost says the H1N1 virus is covered by the 2011-12 vaccine, though he stresses this particular strain of the flu is not as much of a concern this year as it was the previous two. Each year, the flu vaccine protects against the three strains of the virus scientists predict are most likely to infect people in the coming flu season.
That said, the CDC says it is possible for those vaccinated to still get the flu if exposed to a different strain -- that's how the H1N1 pandemic got started in April 2009.
Is the vaccine safe for children/is there a risk of autism?
There have been allegations that the preservative thimerosal used in vaccines causes autism in children. CDC studies show there is no link between the mercury-based preservative and instances of autism in children. Since 2001, though, new vaccines approved for use in children contain little or no thimerosal except for multi-dose flu vaccines.
Thimerosal is used in vials containing more than one dose of vaccine to prevent the growth of germs, bacteria and fungi that could contaminate the vaccine when a syringe needle enters the vial. The Food and Drug Administration has approved single-dose vials that do not contain thimerosal because they are meant to be used only once.
Where can I get the flu vaccine?
Many pharmacies now provide the flu shot for about $25 out of pocket. They typically carry the regular flu shot, the preservative-free flu shot and in some cases the high-dose shot. Flu shot clinics may be available in the area as well, but be sure to call in advance to check for availability if you want something other than the standard vaccine.
Of course, check with your doctor for availability of all vaccine types and if you have any concerns about whether you should get the vaccine.
Frost says there is "plenty of vaccine to go around," so there are no restrictions on who can and cannot get the vaccine as in previous years.
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