While the weather has stayed warm here in New York, the crisp chill of the early morning air is reminding me that fall is right around the corner. While fall is the season of turning leaves and all the beautiful colors that come with it, it’s also the season when the flu virus starts to take hold. It might seem like only yesterday that you got your flu shot, but the flu season will be starting up soon and vaccines are already making their way into the hands of doctors and nurses around the country. Before the flu season starts in earnest, I want to spend a few moments walking through the flu vaccine with you, the options likely to be available this season, and why you should get one this season.
How does the flu vaccine work?
Every year, influenza experts work hard to try and predict which strain of flu is likely to be the main player in infections. Part of the challenge with making a flu vaccine is that the virus mutates every year so that it can overcome the defenses the body built to last year’s strain. This constant change is what makes creating a flu vaccine so challenging and is also why you need a shot every year.
Once the strain is picked based on the best knowledge available, the CDC provides manufacturers with a live virus to grow in the lab. Vaccine makers grow this virus and then kill it and break it up into small particles. These particles become the vaccine and get injected as part of the flu vaccine. Your body’s immune system responds by mounting an attack against these particles and saves a copy of this reaction so that it can respond more quickly and reliably in the future when it sees the real flu virus.
What are my options this year?
If you don’t mind needles, go for the regular vaccine, which will be the most widely available. The CDC is not recommending the nasal vaccine for the 2016-2017 season because of concerns about its effectiveness. A new technology called a jet injector will also be available in some locations that use high-pressure gas to push the vaccine into the skin instead of using a needle. Finally, there’s a vaccine microinjector that uses tiny needles much smaller than those normally used for injection to send the vaccine into the skin. The needles are so small they’re virtually painless.
Why should I get a flu vaccine?
Every year, about 200,000 people are hospitalized for complications related to the flu vaccine. The number of people who die can vary, but it’s been as high as 49,000 in one season, which is about the same as the number of people who die from breast cancer every year. The dangerous thing about the flu that’s different from diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and many of the other diseases we worry about is that it’s infectious. That means that it spreads rapidly from person to person throughout a population. Even if you don’t get very sick, the virus can hitch a ride to a vulnerable individual using your body.
That’s why it’s so important for everyone to get a flu shot whether they’re at high risk of complications from the flu or not. You may not be immunocompromised, over 50 or under 5, but you very likely know or come into regular contact with someone in one of those categories. Unless you get vaccinated, you could be both a victim of the flu and the one responsible for giving it to a person at real risk of dying from illness. Except in rare circumstances, everyone six months and older should be getting vaccinated to protect themselves and those they love from serious infection and risk of death. The CDC has more information on who those rare exceptions should be.
When should I get it?
There’s no advantage to waiting until later in the season to get the shot because the particles in the vaccine will be the same in all vaccines for the whole season. In fact, waiting to get vaccinated just puts you at higher risk for infection and reduces the likelihood you’ll benefit from the vaccine. Getting the shot early in the season maximizes the amount of time you’re protected and minimizes your risk of infection. We’re still right at the beginning of the season, so not all pharmacies will be carrying it, but check in soon and see if you can set up an appointment in advance. If you have questions or concerns about the vaccine, now is the time to make an appointment with your doctor to get your queries answered.
What else can I do to protect myself?
Many of the small actions you take on a day-to-day basis can have a big impact. Wash your hands regularly and thoroughly throughout the day with warm water and soap for at least 20-30 seconds each time. Make sure you cover your mouth when you cough to prevent the spread of any illnesses you may be carrying. Finally, do a quick check of the surfaces you regularly touch in your daily life and in your home and clean them. Sanitizing surfaces like your cell phone screen or door handles can go a long way to keeping you healthy during flu season.
With the right measures, you can keep yourself and family safe from the flu this year. A core part of that is getting the flu vaccine. Don’t delay. If your doctor or pharmacy is already carrying the vaccine, go get it as soon as possible to maximize your protection this year.