When you start seeing pumpkins and Halloween decorations in your neighborhood, it’s time to talk with your doctor about scheduling a flu shot.
Protecting yourself from influenza is important because the viral infection causes 10,000 to 50,000 adult deaths every year, said Dr. John Love, medical director of infectious disease with Butler Health System in western Pennsylvania.
“Everyone who gets a sniffle or feels under the weather calls it the flu,” he said. “Our language does a disservice to the flu.”
It’s especially life-threatening for people with chronic medical problems, older people, and the very young.
“The flu vaccine offers the best opportunity for protection to reduce the risk of developing the infection or reduce the severity of the infection if you become sick with it,” Love said. “It’s our primary mode of prevention.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal vaccination for everyone 6 months old and older every year. Love recommends vaccination in late October because it takes weeks to generate a protective immune response and flu season can start as early as December. Children need two doses separated by four weeks, so the first should be in late summer.
Although the vaccine composition changes every year, the immunity gained from the flu vaccination wanes over the year regardless, Love said.
“People focus on the vaccine changes every year, but you need it every year to keep your immunity primed and ready,” he said.
Anyone who has had a severe, life-threatening reaction to a flu vaccine should not receive it, Love said. Patients who have had Guillain-Barre syndrome or believe they are allergic to eggs should consult their doctor.
“There is always an option for patients with confirmed, severe egg allergy,” Love said. “There’s at least one formulation of vaccine that generally is made without any egg protein.”
He noted that people with compromised immune systems and whoever lives with them should avoid the nasal spray vaccine because it contains a live virus. The intramuscular versions—the shots—do not.
He added that the flu shot cannot give a person the flu. The shot does not contain a live virus and can’t be replicated, and he recommended that patients discuss this and similar concerns with their doctors.
“After vaccination, people may feel not quite as good as they normally do,” he said. “We label anything not normal as the flu, but this is a mark of your immune system getting to work and developing a response to it. That’s good.”