It’s around the beginning of the school year when students come to class and poke their friends’ achy arms after getting their yearly flu shot. Not usually a hot topic of discussion for many, the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly brought attention to the importance of vaccines. While we patiently wait for the new COVID-19 vaccines, let’s discuss one vaccine that you can get to protect your peers today: The Flu Shot.
What is the flu?
According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the “Flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat, and sometimes the lungs. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death. The best way to prevent flu is by getting a flu vaccine each year”. Some symptoms of the flu are a fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, stuffy nose, muscle/body aches, headaches, fatigue, vomiting and diarrhea. Similar to COVID-19, the flu can spread by droplets from coughing, sneezing or talking. The CDC states that on average, around 8% of the U.S. population gets sick from the flu each season, and an estimated 12,000 to 61,000 deaths every year since 2010 are caused by the flu.
What is a vaccine?
A vaccine, as defined by the CDC, “stimulates your immune system to produce antibodies, exactly like it would if you were exposed to the disease. After getting vaccinated, you develop immunity to that disease, without having to get the disease first”. They have the same germs that cause the disease, except that these germs have been killed, weakened or only a part of them is used. They are preventative medicine, not a treatment or a cure. Learn more on the CDC’s Vaccines: The Basics page.
What is a flu vaccine?
The vaccine, administered seasonally, protects you from what influenza viruses will be most common. Vaccines in the United States most commonly protect you against four different flu viruses, “quadrivalent” vaccines. These viruses are influenza A (H1N1), influenza A (H3N2) and two influenza B viruses. There are three main kinds of vaccines the CDC recommends for the 2020-2021 influenza season: inactivated influenza vaccine [IIV], recombinant influenza vaccine [RIV] or live attenuated influenza vaccine [LAIV]. There are many kinds of flu vaccines available for everyone, but some are recommended for certain age ranges, allergies and other factors causing immunocompromisation. It is important that you talk to your health care provider to figure out which vaccine is right for you.
Who can get the flu vaccine?
As stated above, there are different types of flu shots approved for people of different ages and allergies. According to the CDC, the only people who should not get the flu shot are children under six months old and people who are severely allergic to the flu vaccine or its ingredients. Some ingredients that may cause a reaction to those severely allergic are gelatin, eggs and antibiotics. However, most people with an egg allergy can still receive a flu shot. The CDC recommends that you speak with your health care provider if you are allergic to the ingredients in the vaccine, if you have ever had Guillain-Barré Syndrome or if you are not feeling well.
What are some side effects?
Some common side effects from the flu shot are soreness, redness, swelling, headache, fever, nausea, muscle aches, and like other injections, fainting. However, if you experience a severe allergic reaction with difficulty of breathing, hoarseness or wheezing, swelling around lips or eyes, hives, paleness, weakness, fast heartbeat or dizziness, call your doctor. These signs would most likely show up within a few minutes or hours after receiving the vaccine. Life-threatening reactions to the flu shot are rare. If you think it is a severe allergic reaction or emergency, call 9-1-1 to get to the nearest hospital. If this does happen, the CDC says that “the reaction should be reported to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS). Your doctor might file this report, or you can do it yourself through the VAERS website, or by calling 1-800-822-7967. If you believe you have been injured by a flu vaccine you may be eligible to receive compensation from the federal government for your injuries if certain criteria are met. To learn more visit the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program website or call 1-800-338-2382.”
When should you get the flu vaccine?
The flu vaccines take around two weeks after vaccination for the antibodies to develop and provide protection against the flu. The CDC recommends that you get vaccinated early in the fall by the end of October, but not earlier because that may reduce the protection the vaccine can provide you. Pharmacies like CVS Pharmacy, Walgreens and Rite Aid often are able to provide flu vaccines. Some schools, like Hofstra University, also provide these vaccines. Find where you can get your vaccine here.
Why should you get your flu shot?
While some people might still get sick from the flu despite having had the vaccine, it has been proven that flu shots work. The CDC website points out two studies that show how flu shots help. “A 2017 study showed that flu vaccination reduced deaths, intensive care unit (ICU) admissions, ICU length of stay, and overall duration of hospitalization among hospitalized flu patients. Another study in 2018 showed that a vaccinated adult who was hospitalized with flu was 59% less likely to be admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU) than someone who had not been vaccinated. Among adults in the ICU with flu, vaccinated patients on average spent 4 fewer days in the hospital than those who were not vaccinated”. The CDC also provides a list of the benefits of flu vaccination. Some of the benefits of the flu vaccination are that it prevents you from getting sick with the flu, reduces flu-associated hospitalization, it is a preventative tool for those with chronic health conditions, helps protect women during and after pregnancy, can be lifesaving for children, reduces the severity of illness and it may protect the people around you. Especially during the current COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to take into consideration the impact another flu epidemic may take on healthcare resources. While the flu vaccine does not protect you against COVID-19, you may save resources for patients with COVID-19 and will help reduce capacity at health centers, allowing healthcare professionals to be able to tend to those with COVID-19.