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Getting a Flu Shot – What you need to know

November 1, 2011

During her career as a nurse, Caroline Hebert, RN, Manager of the Outpatient Specialty Clinics and Employee Health at Masonicare Health Center in Wallingford, has seen dozens of patients with influenza and witnessed firsthand the serious complications that can often result.  With the flu season upon us, Masonicare asked Caroline to share her knowledge and experience to help protect you and your family.


Should I – and members of my family – get a flu shot every year?  Flu viruses are highly contagious.  Many people don’t realize it, but according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), everyone 6 months of age or older should get a yearly flu vaccine. It is the first – and ultimately the most important – step to take to protect yourself and your loved ones against flu viruses.  The ‘flu shot’ is an inactivated (contains killed virus) vaccine given with a needle, usually in the arm.  It can take up to two weeks after the shot for antibodies to develop, and the protection lasts about a year.  You may have heard in the past that you should wait to get your flu shot, but people are now being urged to get it as soon as possible.

Each year in the U.S., more than 200,000 people are hospitalized and thousands die from flu-related complications. Although there are several different flu viruses, the 2011 – 2012 flu vaccine protects you against the three viruses that the CDC says are the most common this season – one of them is the H1N1 virus that appeared in 2009.  I’m sure you’ll remember that one!  It caused a pandemic, a global outbreak of the flu caused by this new virus that people had no immunity to.


I don’t like needles!  Is there some other way I can receive the vaccine?
People who are healthy and between the ages of 2 and 49 (and not pregnant) have the option of getting the nasal-spray flu vaccine from their primary physician.  It’s actually made with live – although weakened – flu viruses and is given as a nasal spray.  It’s called LAIV or FluMist®.  The viruses in the nasal spray vaccine DO NOT cause the flu.


Are there some people who should not be vaccinated?
The following people should not get a flu vaccine without consulting a physician:

  • People with a severe allergy to eggs (the flu vaccine may contain some amount of egg protein), or those who’ve had a severe reaction to flu vaccine in the past
  • People who are moderately to severely ill and have a fever.  They should wait until they’re better.
  • People with any history Guillain-Barre syndrome.  (Guillain-Barre is a disorder that affects the nervous system and causes an acute onset paralysis.)


Will I experience any side effects?
Remember that almost everyone who receives the flu shot will have no serious problems with it.  The viruses in the shot are inactivated, so you can’t get the flu from a flu shot.  There are a few minor side effects possible, however, such as soreness, redness, or swelling at the site, a low grade fever, and mild body aches.  The nasal spray (LAIV or FluMist®) can cause symptoms in adults such as runny nose, headache, sore throat and cough.


Who is most at risk to get the flu?
People at high risk of serious flu complications should be at the top of the list for receiving the flu vaccine:

  • Young children, especially those over 6 months and under 2
  • Pregnant women
  • Those with chronic health problems like asthma, diabetes or heart and lung disease
  • People who live in nursing homes
  • People 50 and older.

It is particularly important that healthcare workers and caregivers who live or care for high risk people are vaccinated.  Masonicare, for example, makes the flu shot available to residents, employees and volunteers.  We encourage everyone to get vaccinated.  It is especially important for those who have direct contact with patients and residents so as to avoid spreading the flu to the elderly, who are especially vulnerable to serious complications.  It is the responsibility of all of us to protect our elderly and frail residents from harm, and this is just one simple way to accomplish that goal.

Babies younger than 6 months are at high risk for serious flu complications as well, but unfortunately, they’re too young to be vaccinated.  That makes it imperative that parents and other people who care for infants – like daycare providers – are vaccinated!


How can we help stop the spread of the flu to people who haven’t been vaccinated?
Of course, we should all be vigilant in taking preventive steps every day to stop the spread of germs, not just the flu.  Covering your nose and mouth with a tissue if you cough or sneeze is very important – and be sure to throw the tissue into the trash immediately after you use it.  Wash your hands often with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand rub.  Don’t touch your eyes, nose and mouth – germs spread easily that way – and try to avoid close contact with anyone who is sick.  Remember – if you have flu-like symptoms, the CDC recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone.  And when you’re sick, limit your contact with others whenever possible.


If you do get sick, how can you tell whether it’s just a bad cold or the flu?
Both a cold and the flu are respiratory illnesses and have similar flu-like symptoms, and it can be difficult to tell the difference based on just symptoms.  In general, the flu is worse than a cold, and symptoms such as body aches, persistent fever, fatigue and dry cough are more intense.  Colds are usually milder, and those with colds usually have a runny or stuffy nose.  And colds usually don’t cause serious problems like pneumonia, bacterial infections or hospitalization.  To tell if someone actually has the flu, special tests must be done within the first few days of illness.


The CDC recommends that people get the seasonal flu shots as soon as the vaccine becomes available in their community.   So if you haven’t been vaccinated yet, be sure to call your doctor now or seek out other locations where the vaccine is being offered.  Most influenza occurs between October and May, so as long as the vaccine is still available, it’s definitely not too late. 


Remember – In addition to protecting yourself from serious illness, and possibly worse, you’ll be protecting others as well!