Posted by Brigham and Women's Hospital December 4, 2012
You’ve probably seen the signs at your doctor’s office, pharmacy, or local health department over the past few months: “Get Your Flu Vaccine Here.” But do you know why you need a flu vaccine every year and what’s the best time to get vaccinated? Read on to get the flu facts.
- What is the flu?
Influenza (flu) is an infection of the nose, throat, and lungs caused by flu viruses. Symptoms of the flu include fever, muscle aches, sore throat, and a nonproductive cough. There are three major groups of flu viruses: Types A, B, or C. Within each group there are many different strains of flu viruses and they change frequently. Type A and B flu strains cause the most serious illness.
Seasonal flu is not a specific type of flu virus. It refers to the group of flu viruses that cause illness each year from late fall to early winter. These viruses usually reappear each winter in slightly different forms. Each spring, public health experts from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the World Health Organization (WHO) review scientific information to determine which flu viruses are most likely to cause illness in the upcoming flu season.
The 2012-2013 flu vaccine covers two Type A viruses and one Type B virus. According the FDA, it’s especially important to get a flu shot this year because two of the three viruses covered by this year’s vaccine are different from last year. Plus, the CDC notes that this year’s vaccine is a good match with the flu strains that have been reported so far.
- Should I receive the seasonal flu vaccine?
The CDC recommends that anyone over six months of age should receive the seasonal flu vaccine.
It’s especially important that people who have a higher risk of complications from the seasonal flu, including young children (over 6 months), pregnant women, people aged 65 and older, people with weakened immune systems, and people with heart, lung, or kidney disease.
Though allergic reactions to the flu vaccine are rare, the CDC cautions that people who have life-threatening allergies, including allergies to eggs, talk to their doctor before getting a flu vaccine.
Vaccines are given in one of two forms: by injection or through administration of a nasal spray. Both protect against the same flu strains. The flu shot contains inactivated (killed) flu virus and is approved for use in healthy people older than 6 months and people with chronic health conditions. The nasal spray is made with a weakened form of live flu virus. The nasal spray vaccine is approved for healthy people between the ages of 2 and 49, except pregnant women.
- Can I still get the flu if I’ve been vaccinated?
If you are exposed to a strain of flu virus that is not covered by this year’s vaccine, there is a possibility you may get ill; however, your illness may be milder. According to the FDA, this is because certain flu viruses may be similar enough to those that are covered by the vaccine to provide some benefit.
And while vaccination is the best way to prevent the flu, you still should continue to focus on flu prevention throughout the flu season (October through March). Take care of yourself: eat right, exercise, and rest. Frequent hand washing, covering your nose or mouth with a tissue when sneezing, and avoiding contact with sick people are also important steps to staying healthy.
- When should I get vaccinated?
Flu season begins in October and peaks in February. If you haven’t yet gotten vaccinated, there is still time, especially if there are flu outbreaks in your area. According to the CDC, getting vaccinated as late as December will still be beneficial. To see flu outbreaks in your area, visit Flu Near You.
- Where can I get more information about flu vaccination?
Speak with your physician about flu vaccination, especially if you are in a high-risk group or have allergies. Flu.gov, a website created by the US Department of Health and Human Services also has plenty of helpful information, including how to find a flu clinic near you. The CDC is also a good source of information about the flu, vaccination, and prevention. They even have an influenza app so you can get flu facts on the go.
- Jamie R