FAQs on Flu Season 2008-2009
As millions of Americans endure the surge of colds and sinus infections typical of the fall, flu season rapidly approaches. Tens of thousands of people in the U.S. die from influenza each year. There would probably be many more deaths if it weren't for aggressive vaccination strategies led by national health departments and healthcare providers.
Every year I advise my patients to get their flu shots before the start of flu season (in October). Many parents and patients have questions about the flu vaccine that warrant further address.
I listed some of the questions (Q) along with my answers (A) below.
Q: "Is it true you can get the flu from the flu vaccine?"
- A: No, the flu vaccine given by injection is a killed virus that has no whole virus particle in it. Therefore you cannot get the flu from the injected vaccine. Some people may experience mild soreness at the injection site.
Q: "Are some flu vaccinations harmful if you have asthma?"
- A: The answer is yes. FluMist is a live (but weakened) vaccine available for people between the age 2 and 49 years and administered by spraying it into the nose (no needles). Caution is recommended for people that are wheezing or have a history of asthma or some other chronic medical problems.
- The injected flu vaccine can be given to asthma patients and many others that have chronic medical conditions who in fact, like asthma patients, represent the target group that would most benefit from the vaccine.
Q: "Why do I need to get the flu shot every year?"
- A: The viruses associated with influenza mutate from one year to the next. The mutations in their surface proteins allow them to escape our protective immune agents (antibodies) which were formed from the previous year's vaccination. Furthermore, antibody levels for influenza tend to decrease after 3-4 months. For this reason the flu shot should not be given too early (avoid getting it before September or October).
Q: "When does flu season begin and how long is it?"
- A: For many years flu season in America has started in December and goes through March. But you can contract the flu outside of this time period.
Q: "How will this year's flu season differ from previous ones?"
- A: Scientists discovered that a large percentage of people were not protected by last year's flu vaccine because of new strains of flu viruses that surfaced during the winter of 2007-08. This year's vaccine has been changed to include protection from the new strains.
Q: "It seems like health officials want everyone to get the flu vaccine. Is this true?"
- A:The CDC recommends the flu vaccine be given to anyone over the age of 6 months, with the priority being children and adolescents, at high risk for flu complications, the elderly, people with chronic disease conditions and pregnant women.
- Recommendations regarding who should get flu vaccine have greatly expanded over the past 10 years. This is because the risk/benefit ratio of getting vaccinated is so low. This means the benefit of being protected from a potentially fatal flu syndrome is much higher than the risk of suffering from harmful effects of the flu vaccine (very low risk of any severe side effects). Target groups (young children, the elderly, asthmatics, diabetics and others with chronic illnesses) are at high risk of getting very ill or dying from the flu.
Q: "Who should not get the flu vaccination?"
- A: Anyone allergic to egg should not get the flu vaccine without seeing an allergist first. Severe egg allergy usually means the flu shot will not be given. Under some circumstances the shot may be given in small increments to people that are high risk of complications from influenza (multiple small injections are done sequentially in an office visit or over several days). People that have previously had a severe reaction to a flu shot should not get vaccinated.
There is an abundant supply of flu vaccine this year. Now is the time to get your defense system ready for a possible flu invasion in the oncoming weeks. Ask your doctor about getting your flu vaccination right away.
If you have usually avoided getting a flu shot, tell us why.