Concerned about flu season? Wondering if you and your children should get vaccinated? Saul Hymes, MD, Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics and a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases with Stony Brook Children's Hospital, addresses the most common concerns about flu season and, more importantly, what you can do now to protect yourself and your children.
How serious is the flu this year?
The flu, or seasonal influenza virus, is extremely unpredictable. Its severity can vary widely from one season to the next depending on many things, including the strains of flu spreading, availability of vaccines, how many people get vaccinated and how well the flu vaccine is matched to the flu viruses circulating each season.
The bottom line: Take the flu seriously, take precautions, don’t worry too much, stay home if you are sick, and call your doctor if symptoms are severe or prolonged — or if you develop complications.
Who is at greatest risk?
Certain people are at greater risk for serious complications if they get the flu. They include:
- People over age 65
- Young children under the age of 5 and especially those under the age of 2
- Pregnant women
- People with certain health conditions (such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease)
- People who live in facilities like nursing homes
How can I protect myself?
Use common sense. This includes:
- Avoiding those who are ill
- Covering your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throwing the tissue in the trash after you use it. Coughing or sneezing into your elbow or shoulder, not into your hands, if you don't have a tissue
- Washing your hands frequently and thoroughly
- Staying home from work if you are sick
- Keeping your children out of school and after-school activities if they are sick
However, the easiest way to protect yourself and your children is to get vaccinated.
Are the influenza vaccines safe?
The following vaccines are in use this year and are extremely safe:
- The inactivated (killed) virus vaccine, which is given by injection. This is safe for people older than 6 months. The common side effects are redness and soreness at the vaccination site. You cannot get an infection from a killed virus, so this vaccine does not cause the flu. There are two main types of injected vaccine, one with protection against three strains of flu and one with protection against four strains. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not recommend one over the other, so whichever vaccine your doctor or pharmacy has in stock is okay to receive.
- There is also a flu vaccine that uses no eggs, which makes it completely safe for patients who are allergic to eggs.
Keep in mind that all of the vaccine side effects are mild and resolve within one to two days of the administration of the vaccine. Also note: the injectable vaccine no longer contains thimerosal (mercury-containing compound) and the nasal vaccine never contained it. In rare cases, adults and children who receive the vaccine can have an allergic reaction.
Are the vaccines effective?
How well the flu vaccine works (or its ability to prevent flu illness) can range widely from season to season. The vaccine’s effectiveness also can vary depending on who is being vaccinated. At least two factors play an important role in determining the likelihood that the flu vaccine will protect a person from flu illness: 1) characteristics of the person being vaccinated (such as their age and health), and 2) the similarity or "match" between the flu viruses the flu vaccine is designed to protect against and the flu viruses spreading in the community. During years when the flu vaccine is not well matched to circulating viruses, it’s possible that no benefit from flu vaccination may be observed. During years when there is a good match between the flu vaccine and circulating viruses, it’s possible to measure substantial benefits from vaccination in terms of preventing flu illness. However, even during years when the vaccine match is very good, the benefits of vaccination will vary across the population, depending on characteristics of the person being vaccinated and even, potentially, which vaccine was used.
Each season researchers try to determine how well flu vaccines work to regularly assess and confirm the value of flu vaccination as a public health intervention. Study results about how well a flu vaccine works can vary based on study design, outcome(s) measured, population studied and the season in which the flu vaccine was studied. These differences can make it difficult to compare one study’s results with another’s.
While determining how well a flu vaccine works is challenging, in general, recent studies have supported the conclusion that flu vaccination benefits public health, especially when the flu vaccine is well matched to circulating flu viruses.*
Of note, however, beginning last year the CDC recommends against using the Live-Attenuated Influenza Vaccine (LAIV), also known as the nasal vaccine, as it has been shown in recent reviews of past years’ data to be ineffective.
Why should you get your influenza vaccine?
The CDC recommends that everyone over 6 months of age be vaccinated unless they have a known allergy to the flu vaccine. In addition, if you have a severe (life-threatening, with wheezing or throat narrowing) allergy to eggs or a history of Guillain-Barre syndrome (a neurologic disease) after a flu vaccine in the past, consult with your doctor before being vaccinated.
There are two main reasons to get vaccinated:
- To protect yourself from the flu and its complications. The flu can cause five to seven days of illness with high fevers, painful muscle aches, cough, sore throat and exhaustion. People sick with the flu will miss work or school and need to be cared for. The flu also can lead to complications like pneumonia, which may require treatment with antibiotics or even hospitalization.
- To protect those around you. Children less than 6 months old, who cannot be vaccinated yet, are at an increased risk of contracting the flu and are at a very high risk for complications. Vaccinating the parents of such children, and other adults and children around them, will help to protect them. There are other groups who either cannot be vaccinated or are at increased risk of complications from the flu, and by getting vaccinated you help protect them further.
Vaccination helps protect you as well as those around you who cannot be vaccinated. All parents should be vaccinated to help protect their children. The flu vaccine is effective and safe.
To find out where flu vaccines are offered in your area, call your doctor, pharmacy or other local health facility; or use the HealthMap Vaccine Finder.