Stopping the Flu Starts with You
Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Jacqueline Riedel, D.O.

It’s hard to believe, but autumn will be here before we know it! Between wrapping up summer trips, getting the kids back to school, and starting to plan for the holidays, your health may be the furthest thing from your mind. But it’s important to remember one easy step you can take to protect yourself and your loved ones during this time of year: getting the influenza vaccine.

Influenza – or “the flu” – is a contagious respiratory illness. It is thought to spread from person to person by droplets produced when infected people cough or sneeze, or by touching surfaces that ill people may have coughed on. Symptoms of the flu may include: fever (though not all cases exhibit fever); cough; sore throat; runny or stuffy nose; headache; body aches; fatigue; and vomiting and diarrhea (although this is more typical in infected children than adults).

While anyone can catch the flu, there are certain groups of people who are considered more likely to develop severe complications from influenza infections. These groups include young children under 5 (and especially children under 2); people older than 65; and pregnant women. The flu also conveys increased risk to people with certain medical conditions known to decrease the body’s immunity, such as asthma, COPD, diabetes, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, morbid obesity, and liver and kidney disorders. Regardless of your risk, the CDC recommends vaccination for everyone -- not only does this protect you, but it protects others around you.

Every year, new flu vaccines are manufactured based on worldwide patterns of illness.  Medical bodies, like the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), examine global data and attempt to predict which of many influenza strains will be the predominant illness-causing organisms in a given year. A vaccine is then formulated based on those predictions. This is why we must all be re-vaccinated each year.

The CDC recommends getting a flu shot as early as the vaccine is available, usually in late August or early September. Studies on people who have been vaccinated show that immunity from the flu shot lasts for up to one year, so don’t worry about the effectiveness “wearing off” if you get it early.

The flu vaccine can be administered in a few different ways. The newest method is what is called an intradermal vaccine: using a very short, small needle, the vaccine is injected just under the top layer of the skin. The more traditional method, the intramuscular injection, uses a longer needle to inject the vaccine directly into a muscle, usually in the upper arm. These injections contain pieces of killed influenza virus; your body recognizes them as foreign, and creates antibodies to protect you from infection if you are subsequently exposed to the virus. Another method of flu vaccination is through a nasal spray that contains living, but weakened, flu virus. You should consult with your doctor to see which vaccination method is right for you.

Finally, I want to dispel a persistent myth: You cannot catch the flu from the flu vaccine. However, possible side effects of the vaccine include fever, headache, body aches, fatigue, cough and hoarseness; this is evidence of your immune system responding to the vaccine and working to make protective antibodies! If these symptoms occur, they usually start soon after the shot and last for only 24 to 48 hours. So be sure to protect your family and friends by getting your flu shot this season! 

Dr. Jacqueline Riedel is a Family Medicine physician and a member of the Kennedy Health Alliance. She practices in West Deptford, NJ, and can be reached by calling 856-384-0210.