Why It's Important For People with Rheumatoid Arthritis to Get a Flu Shot
October is the beginning of flu season and medical offices, hospitals and clinics, schools and employers around the country are now offering the flu vaccine, either through the "flu shot" or a nasal-spray called LAIV (FluMist®). You might be wondering why I am writing about the flu vaccine on an RA webpage. It's because people with RA and other chronic conditions are at higher risk for developing the flu and complications from the flu, especially those of us who take immunosuppressant drugs like TNF-inhibitors. For that reason, my rheumatologist is adamant that I get the vaccine every year, since I have no allergies or other contraindications for receiving it. Others at most risk are the very young, older people, and caregivers to people at higher risk. Here are a few statistics from the Centers for Disease Control: every year in the United States, about 5% to 20% of the population gets the flu; more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu complications, and; about 36,000 people die from flu.
I am also writing because even though the flu vaccine has been available for years now, every year I hear people say that they aren't going to get the flu vaccine because it gives them the flu. It's a misperception that just won't go away, even though almost all people who get the vaccine have no serious problems. People cannot get the flu from either the flu shot, which uses DEAD flu virus, or the nasal spray, which uses live virus in forms that do not cause the flu. Some people do have a slight reaction to the flu shot in the form of a low grade fever, aches, and soreness, redness, or swelling where the shot was given. If these problems occur, they begin soon after the shot and usually last 1 to 2 days. The side effects can be a little different for the nasal-spray and can include runny nose, wheezing, headache, vomiting and muscle aches and fever (in children). Adults sometimes get a sore throat and cough. Very rarely, flu vaccination can cause serious problems like severe allergic reactions.
October and November are the best times to get vaccinated, as it takes about two weeks for your body to build up antibodies to protect against a flu infection. However, people can still receive the vaccine in December or later. Flu season runs all the way through May.
People often confuse a severe cold, or respiratory infection, with the flu, because the symptoms are very similar. People with colds usually have a runny or stuffy nose, while the flu is less likely to cause these symptoms. However, flu is characterized by a high fever, body aches, extreme tiredness, and dry cough. Stomach symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, also can occur with the flu but are more common in children than adults Colds are usually milder than the flu and they generally do not result in serious health problems, such as pneumonia or bacterial infections requiring hospitalization.
There are some people who should not receive the flu vaccine in either form. They are children under 6 months; people who have a severe allergy to chicken eggs; people who have had a severe reaction to an influenza vaccination in the past; and people who developed Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) within 6 weeks of getting an influenza vaccine previously.
For more information about influenza and the flu vaccine, see http://www.cdc.gov/flu/