Fall is here. Apples are in season. Leaves are falling. Pumpkin just begs to be baked into a pie.
But with all of those good things comes at least one not-so-good thing: the flu.
Flu season can begin in October and end as late as May, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Influenza is caused by viruses and because these can change, each flu season is a different. Individuals also are affected differently by the flu, including fever, cough, sore throat, vomiting, diarrhea or respiratory distress. Typically the worst cases are in people 65 or older. CDC estimates of flu-related deaths between 1976 and 2007 range from 3,000 to 49,000, and in a normal year, about 90 percent of deaths are in people older than 65.
Several years ago, swine flu – the H1N1 virus – hit the U.S. and caused a great deal of concern because it seemed to strike pregnant women and younger adults much harder than the typical flu virus. Odd flu seasons like that are when you start seeing headlines about the flu killing people and urging people to get vaccinated against the virus.
But the CDC and other health organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a flu vaccine every year for anyone older than 6 months. The vaccine especially is important for people who might develop complications, such as pneumonia, from the flu – this includes people older than 65 or people with asthma or other respiratory illnesses – as well as pregnant women and anyone caring for someone who might be struck harder than normal with the flu.
How does the vaccine work?
The most common flu vaccine is a trivalent one made of three parts, sort of a best-guess made by physicians about the flu viruses they think will be circulating in the upcoming season. It usually is available either as a shot or a nasal spray. When you get the vaccine, your body creates antibodies against the viruses that have just been put into your system – in a weakened form – and those antibodies ward off the full-strength version of the virus.
Is there anyone who should not be vaccinated?
The flu vaccine is not safe for people who are allergic to eggs or who have had Guillan-Barre Syndrom, which is a severe paralytic illness. The vaccine also isn't recommended for infants younger than 6 months. You should not get the vaccine if you've had a moderate to severe illness with a fever; you may have the vaccine after you fully recover.
When should I get the vaccine?
The CDC estimates as many as 149 million vaccines will be available this season; some shipments were out as early as August. Flu season usually peaks around January or February, so it's best to get the vaccine early in the season. My pediatrician usually has doses available beginning in mid- to late September.
Where to get the vaccine?
Many workplaces, including mine, offer the vaccine for free or a small fee. Your pediatrician or family doctor should have doses available. Local clinics and drugstores or pharmacies also should have the vaccine available. At the CDC (http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/keyfacts.htm), you can search for flu vaccine clinics by typing in your zip code.
Will it hurt? Will I get sick?
The flu vaccine shot stings a bit and might make your arm sore. Mine was stiff for about a day. You also might have a low fever or aches. The nasal spray vaccine might cause a runny nose, headache, cough or, in children, vomiting or diarrhea.
How long will it take to work?
Your body usually takes about two weeks to build up the appropriate antibodies. So, if you get the vaccine by Halloween, you should be well protected by the time you head to Aunt Betty's for Thanksgiving, which is good because you never know what Uncle Dan is passing around with the cranberry sauce.
Hillary Copsey is a newspaper features editor (and former health reporter) in Florida with experience writing about everything from population trends to health-care issues. As the mother of two boys, she also is versed in searching for daycares, cooking healthy dinners on the fly and playing with trucks. She co-writes the blog Not raising brats. She writes about parenting for dailySpark and BabyFit.com.
Will you get a flu shot this year?
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