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Health & Exercise Forum

The Who, What, When and Why of Flu Vaccination: Part III of III

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Nov 16, 2009


Medical Reviewer: Gregory Cali, D.O.

The single best way to protect against influenza is to get a flu vaccination each year. Influenza vaccination is recommended for anyone who wants to reduce the likelihood of becoming ill with influenza or spreading influenza to others. In general, all healthy people from 6 months of age through 18 years old and those 50 years and older should get vaccinated. Vaccination is strongly recommended for those who are at risk for complications from influenza: residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, pregnant women, people with long-term health problems (e.g. diseases of the heart, lung, kidney, or liver; metabolic [diabetes] or blood [anemia] disorders), anyone with a weakened immune system (e.g. HIV/AIDS, long-term steroid use, cancer treatment), individuals with certain muscle and nerve disorders who can develop breathing and swallowing problems (e.g. seizure disorders and cerebral palsy), and anyone 6 months through 18 years of age on long-term aspirin treatment because they could develop Reye’s Syndrome if they got the flu. The CDC now recommends that, in addition to these high-risk groups, all healthy children, who are 6 months to 5 years old, get a flu vaccination. Vaccination is also advocated for individuals who live with or care for people in the above mentioned high-risk groups. Healthcare providers and community workers are advised to receive their annual flu vaccination. To prevent outbreaks in crowded conditions, people living in dormitories and correctional facilities should consider getting the flu shot.

Two Types of Vaccines

There are two types of seasonal flu vaccines available: the flu shot and the nasal-spray flu vaccine. The “flu shot” is an inactivated (killed) vaccine given by injection into the muscle. The live, attenuated (weakened) influenza vaccine is sprayed into the nostrils. Since influenza viruses are always changing, their vaccines are updated every year and, therefore, an annual vaccination is recommended. Each year scientists are hard at work trying to match the viruses in the vaccine to those most likely to cause the flu that year. The CDC recommends that you get vaccinated in October or November before the flu season peaks between late December and early March. Within two weeks of getting the flu shot antibodies develop in your body and provide protection against flu symptoms. If you do get flu symptoms, call your doctor. If you take prescription antiviral drugs within the first 48 hours of flu symptoms, the medications may help shorten recovery time. Antiviral medication may also help prevent the flu if you have been exposed to someone with flu symptoms. The novel H1N1 vaccine is not intended to replace the seasonal flu vaccine. Both vaccines are necessary to help protect against the influenza viruses circulating this year!

Since the viruses in the flu shot are inactivated (killed), you can not get the flu from the flu shot. You can get some minor side effects such as soreness, redness, and swelling at the injection site or you may develop a low-grade fever and body aches. Even though the vaccine can cause serious problems, such as severe allergic reactions, the risk is extremely small. To avoid complications, there are some people who should consult their physician before getting the flu shot. These individuals include those who have egg allergies (the virus is grown in eggs) and those who have had a severe reaction to a previous flu shot. You may not be a candidate for the flu shot if you ever had Guillain-Barre΄ Syndrome. Also, people who are moderately ill should usually wait until they recover before getting the flu vaccine.

Benefits and Risks

Interestingly, my mother was recently hospitalized with an infection in her bloodstream. I would have considered her “moderately ill” given that 20% of the people who are diagnosed with her type of blood infection die! However, it was recommended that she receive the seasonal flu shot. I questioned the registered nurse about the possibility of a serious complication given my mother’s delicate state of health. She said that the risk of getting the flu far exceeded the risk of developing any serious adverse effects.

Some signs of a severe reaction following the flu shot include: high fever, behavior changes, difficulty breathing, hoarseness, wheezing, hives, paleness, weakness, fast heart beat, or dizziness. If you experience any of these symptoms or develop any other unusual signs, contact you doctor immediately. Your physician will need a description of exactly what happened as well as the date and time it occurred.   Your doctor will report the reaction by filling out a Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) form.

If you missed them, go back and read Part I and Part II in this three-part series dedicated to cold and flu season.

Visit your doctor regularly and listen to your body.

Keep moving, eat healthy foods, exercise regularly, and live long and well!

Janet M. Caputo, PT, OCS – guest columnist is an associate and clinic director at Mackarey Physical Therapy where she specializes in outpatient orthopedic and neurologic rehab. She is presently working on her doctorate in physical therapy from the University of Scranton.