As the school year kicks off and time in close contact with other people increases, the flu season begins. It is common sense that we maintain good hygiene with frequent hand washing, a healthy diet and a balance of exercise and rest, but we can definitely do more to prevent the flu by receiving the flu vaccine every year.
The annual flu vaccine is the most important step we can take in protecting ourselves and those around us, especially those who are more susceptible to serious flu illnesses. Contagious influenza viruses can cause a mild to severe respiratory illness, and result in thousands of deaths. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to 90 percent of influenza-related deaths in children younger than 18 during the 2012-13 flu season occurred in those who did not receive the vaccine. What is really heart-wrenching is that 60 percent of the children who died did not have any recognized chronic health problem that would put them at risk for severe flu illness. This fatal outcome could have been prevented by vaccinating them.
The flu vaccine is recommended for everyone 6 months or older. For those with babies younger than 6 months old, it is extremely important that the adults who are in contact with these infants get immunized. If your baby is old enough to receive the vaccine, the first season your baby gets it he or she will have to receive a second dose four weeks after the initial injection. This is the best way to protect your baby.
Pregnant women should get the vaccine as well, because pregnancy may put them at risk of a more complicated illness with the flu. The vaccine will also help protect their unborn babies, reducing the risk of miscarriage.
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Some people disregard getting vaccinated because they believe that the flu vaccine does not work. However, even when the flu vaccine is not 100 percent effective (no vaccine is completely effective), it reduces the risk of catching the flu. Viruses are tricky and like to change often, so we have to keep up with them. Each year’s flu vaccine is designed for the current season to increase the chances that it will be protective against the illness. Even when the strains in the flu vaccine do not match all of the strains circulating that year, the vaccine offers protection and can prevent the more severe forms of the illness. Additionally, as more people get vaccinated, there is better indirect protection and the vaccine is more effective.
Physicians often hear patient concerns about getting sick from the vaccine or getting the flu despite having received the vaccine. It is impossible to catch the flu from the inactivated vaccine. Keep in mind that it takes time to develop a protective reaction from the vaccine, usually two weeks, but it takes only two to five days to incubate the virus. If someone develops the flu right after receiving the vaccine it is because the flu bug was already in his or her system, incubating by the time the shot was given.
The side effects of the vaccine are usually mild, with some soreness in the area of injection. Even the live attenuated virus in the nasal spray vaccine is too weak to cause the flu, although it can cause mild symptoms such as runny nose, sore throat, cough and some fever. There are benefits of receiving this intranasal vaccine as it is more protective in healthy children older than 2. Your pediatrician can help you decide which type of vaccine will be the best for your child based on his or her age and medical history.
Now is the time to get vaccinated. Keep your kids healthy by vaccinating them early in the season. This will ensure that they have the necessary protection throughout the entire flu season.
Delia M. Rivera-Hernández, M.D., F.A.A.P., is a pediatric infectious disease specialist and outpatient clinical director of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Disease and Immunology at UHealth – University of Miami Health System. The Department of Pediatrics at UHealth is nationally and internationally acclaimed for education, research, patient care and biomedical innovation. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.