MAYWOOD, Ill. - With flu season just around the corner, this is no time to dilly dally before getting vaccinated against an illness that usually strikes hardest in late fall and winter.
"The time is now to get a flu shot," said Dr. Michael Koller, associate professor, Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine in Maywood, Ill.
The flu (or influenza) is a highly contagious viral infection that attacks the respiratory system. Doctors used to advise getting a flu shot only in October and November. Now doctors vaccinate through February because it takes about two weeks to develop an antibody response after the flu shot. For the last 30 years in the United States, February has been the peak month for illness.
"Flu is primarily spread by respiratory droplets," Koller said. "When somebody with influenza coughs or sneezes, out shoots this spray of flu virus that can infect anyone nearby. In addition to covering your mouth when you cough and covering your nose when you sneeze, it's really important to wash your hands."
Each year in the U.S. between five to 20 percent of the population contracts the flu. Symptoms include an abrupt onset of fever, chills, headaches, exhaustion, aching muscles and a constant, unproductive cough, Koller said,
Most people recover from the flu in a few days, although they may experience some fatigue for several weeks after, Koller said. However, for some people flu is a much more serious illness that requires hospitalization. In extreme cases, the flu can lead to pneumonia or death. About 36,000 Americans die and 200,000 are hospitalized from the flu each year.
"Once you have the flu, you never forget it," Koller said. "Usually those are the people you don't have to convince to get a flu shot because they never want to get it again."
What's new this year? For one, the Centers for Disease Control expanded the universal vaccination age for children from age five all the way up to age 18. So now, every child age six months through age 18 should get a yearly flu shot. Also, the vaccine is already here and widely available. In addition, there is more vaccine available than ever before. There are about 145 million doses available nationwide, and there are six different companies licensed to make influenza vaccine in the U.S. A few years ago, when there were only two companies making flu vaccine, there were shortages that lead to the rationing of flu shots. Not this year. There is no shortage and no delay in shipment.
Who else besides all children age 6 months to 18 years should get vaccinated against the flu? The CDC also recommends universal vaccinations for all people age 50 and older and anyone with a chronic illness such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease.
"People who have cancer, people who are immunosuppressed or people who are infected with HIV (the virus that causes AIDS), should also get a flu shot," Koller said.
A person who may not fall into an at-risk population but who lives with someone who does should also be vaccinated, Koller said. The other big group who should be vaccinated yearly is health-care workers. Anyone can have the flu and be contagious a day before you come down with all the classic symptoms of the flu. Because healthcare workers take care of frail patients who may not be able to fight off the flu, it is a matter of patient safety that healthcare workers get a flu shot every year.
For parent of young children who are worried about vaccines containing thimerosal, a preservative that contains mercury, Koller said that some of the flu shots no longer contain any thimerosal.
"The product that Loyola has doesn't have any thimerosal at all," Koller said.
Koller said, however, that any child under the age nine who is getting a flu shot for the first time will need a second or "booster" shot four weeks later. Parents often are unaware that their young child may need a second flu shot in the first year of vaccination.
Koller said that it's impossible to get the flu from getting a flu shot, which is a common misperception. However, he added that some will experience some side effects.
"Some people get soreness or pain at the site of the injection. A smaller number of people will feel achy and tired," Koller said. "But all of those side effects are usually gone after two days. If it's the first year that you've gotten the flu shot, you're more likely to get the side effects. In the subsequent years, you're much less likely to get them."
Bottom line, influenza is a serious illness that can be prevented by vaccination. Since there is no shortage of vaccine, anyone who wants to decrease their risk of contracting the flu this year should get a flu shot now.