Medical Column: But Doctor, Do I Have to Get the Flu Shot?

Posted on

Medical Column
By: Dr. Kayla Batchelor
“But Doctor, do I have to get the flu shot?”

This is a question frequently heard by practitioners everywhere. The annual flu shot helps prevent the spread of a contagious disease that has possible fatal consequences. Since “flu season” is quickly approaching, your doctor may have already recommended you get this vaccination.

When is “Flu Season?”

Although influenza viruses are detected year-round, it is most common during the fall and winter months. We commonly see increased activity beginning in October and extending as late as May. Peak months are December-February.

What is the flu?

Influenza, “the flu,” is an acute respiratory illness caused by a virus.

There are many varieties of the virus, but here in the United States we routinely check for the most common subtypes which are deemed “Influenza A” and “Influenza B.”

The disease is spread by small droplets through coughing, sneezing, or even speaking. Once exposed, you may not develop symptoms for up to 4 days.

The flu commonly affects the nose and throat, but may also affect the lungs. Common symptoms include: fever (100.4 or higher), headaches, body aches, cough, sore throat, runny nose, and fatigue.

The illness is typically mild and resolves on its own, but certain groups have a higher risk for complications including death.

Who is at a higher risk for complications?

• Adults over 65 years old: 70-90% of flu-related deaths

• Children less than 5 years old: higher risk of pneumonia, dehydration, sinus and ear infections, long term complications, death

• Pregnant women: more likely to experience severe illness harm to the unborn

• Persons with chronic lung diseases (Asthma/COPD): more likely to develop pneumonia or exacerbation requiring hospitalization

• Persons suffering from heart disease and stroke: vaccination lowers risk of cardiac events

• Diabetics: increased risk of pneumonia, bronchitis, sinusitis, ear infections, and unregulated blood sugars

• Persons with HIV/AIDS: more likely to have prolonged illness and complications

• Persons with cancer: more likely to develop complications due to their suppressed immune system

Can the flu shot cause you to “get the flu?”

No. The vaccination does not cause influenza. However, after receiving the vaccine your body may take up to two weeks to gain full protection. Therefore, you may still get sick if you were exposed to the virus before receiving the vaccine or during those two weeks.

Who should get vaccinated?

Everyone over the age of 6 months should be vaccinated annually. This vaccine is even more important for people those in the higher risk categories. Only those younger than 6 months of age and those with severe life-threatening allergies to the vaccine or its ingredients should avoid the vaccine. Benefits of vaccination include fewer missed school and work days, fewer doctors’ visits, and fewer hospitalizations. Most importantly, the vaccine can be life-saving; not only for the person receiving the vaccine, but also by decreasing the spread and protecting vulnerable populations. The vaccine comes in two forms, injection and nasal spray, with the most common side effects being soreness/redness at the injection site, headache, and fever. Check with your primary care physician to determine which vaccination form is best for you.