So Much Ado About the Flu

By Dr. Nick Guinn

Why is it that each time you go to the doctor from September through March you’re asked about your flu vaccine status?  What’s the big deal?  I hear it all the time, “I’ve never gotten a flu shot and never had the flu.  I’m not gonna start now.”  Here’s the deal – getting the flu vaccine yearly is an easy way to save you money, save you time, save you and your family from suffering and ultimately save your life.  The numbers below are staggering (and these represent a year in which the vaccine provided less than expected coverage against the flu):

*

Next, let’s get one thing straight.  “The flu” is not exactly a harmless respiratory infection synonymous with the common cold.  Many people may equate it to that.  No, one has only“the flu” when they have the influenza virus.  Your symptoms could be mild to severe or could potentially cause death.  This mostly depends on your age and chronic health conditions.  Those at greatest risk of severe illness or complications include:  people 65 and older, young children, pregnant women, and those with asthma, diabetes or heart disease.  Some typical symptoms could be fever and/or chills, cough, sore throat, runny nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, fatigue, vomiting or diarrhea.

So what is the vaccine, and who gets it?  The flu vaccine is a new vaccine made every year.  It comes in different forms— nasal spray or injection.   It can be given to anyone age 6 months and up.  There is a high-dose form that is recommended for adults 65 and older.  It’s recommended that children 6 months to 8 years should get 2 doses of the vaccine if they never have been immunized.  There are very few absolute contraindications to receiving the flu vaccine.  If you have an egg allergy, depending on its severity, you still can get vaccinated as long as you are monitored for 30 minutes afterwards.  If you have a mild acute illness,  you still can get the vaccine.  Also, let me clarify that it is impossible to get the flu from the vaccine.   You may have redness or soreness at the site of injection or may develop a low grade fever or aches.  These are very mild and are simply your immune system responding to the vaccine.  There are very few reasons not to get vaccinated.  Talk to your doctor about what vaccine is right for you and when to get it.

Why do we have to get it every year?  We recommend getting the flu vaccine every year because the influenza virus is smart.  It mutates or changes itself with small, rapid changes throughout the year.  It also can make a one-time big change that makes it quite different from previous versions.  These result in different strains of the flu virus that change the way our immune system recognizes and tries to fight off the infection.  This property of the flu virus is why we ask everyone to get their flu vaccine every year.  Because of these changes, we have to make a new vaccine every year based on the strain that currently is circulating and its expected mutations.  This also accounts for why the vaccine is never a perfect match and we can still get the flu even after being vaccinated.  However, the severity of the flu symptoms will not be as severe in someone who has received the vaccine because their immune system still will be able to recognize and respond to infection better than someone who has not been vaccinated.

The bottom line is that getting a flu vaccination just makes sense.  It’s the same reason you wear a seatbelt in a car, a helmet on a bike, a life-jacket on a boat— the flu vaccine is a simple safety measure that can help prevent serious outcomes from a common problem.  It can save lives.  I will never forget caring for a 45-year-old woman in the ICU for complications resulting from the flu.  She ultimately succumbed to the illness less 24 hours after arriving at the hospital.  Never again will I view “the flu” as a benign illness.  The flu vaccine is a safe, easy and effective means of preventing lost wages, time off work and away from family and feeling miserable if you get the flu.  It can save your life.  God forbid, but if a flu-related tragedy should strike, do you or your loved ones really want to look back and think “This could have been prevented”.

 

*The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,  http://www.cdc.gov/flu/index.htm

 

This article was written by Dr. Nick Guinn. Dr. Guinn is a family practice physican at St. Bernards First Care on Matthews Avenue. A Jonesboro native, he completed undergraduate studies from Arkansas State University. He then went on to receive his Doctor of Medicine at Ross University School of Medicine. After medical school, he returned to Jonesboro where he completed his internship and residency at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences—Northeast Family Medicine Residency.

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