Is the Flu Shot for You?

Unfortunately, viruses are not merry creatures that can easily be spotted and avoided.

I got a flu shot for the first time this year — but it took me three tries, going from pharmacy to pharmacy in Connecticut. I work in my home office, so I never thought I needed the shot before. But this year I caved, partially because of all the media reports about an early, virulent flu season, and also because my mother is in a nursing home and I don’t want to expose her or the other residents to the illness.

The shot itself was a breeze: A tiny pinch in the arm and it was done, with just a little local soreness for about 24 hours. And so far, I’ve avoided the dreaded influenza — although, ironically, I am sniffling with a cold as I write this post!

Good thing, because the flu news keeps getting worse: It’s at epidemic levels and responsible for the deaths of at least 20 children and the hospitalization of 3,700 people nationwide. The flu has been identified in 49 states, and currently 24 states and New York City are reporting high levels of flu-like illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Why is the flu worse this year?
The flu has hit extra hard because it started so early this season — in November and December rather than the usual peak of January or February. Those prime holiday months for socializing acted as a great vector for spreading the virus since the illness is primarily spread through sneezing, coughing and even talking.

And you may not know that you’re talking to someone who has the flu: It’s contagious one day before people have symptoms and for five to seven days after they become sick. You can also get the flu from touching surfaces contaminated with the virus.

Where can you get flu shots?
The government recommends that the vast majority of Americans get a flu shot — and fast! The shot is approved for those 6 months and older; there’s also a high-dose shot for those 65 and older.

It’s not too late, but it does take a couple of weeks for the shot to take full effect. Many pharmacies and walk-in clinics are offering shots as well as doctors’ offices. Since there’s been a run on vaccine over the past couple of weeks, you may have to try more than one store, as I did. Check out flu.gov’s HealthMap Vaccine Finder to find the nearest pharmacy or clinic, and to report vaccine shortages in your area.

Why are some people refusing flu shots?
You may have read about the three Indiana nurses who were fired for refusing mandatory flu shots. Why refuse the shot? Some people believe the shot itself can cause the flu. But the form of the virus in the shot is inactive, designed to spur your body to develop antibodies to the flu strains, but without the power to actually cause the illness.

Other people believe the shot isn’t worth it because it’s only about 60 percent effective, meaning you can still get the flu. If you do get hit by the flu after the shot, however, it should be much less debilitating than if you hadn’t had the shot at all because your body will already be somewhat prepared to fight it.

For those who just don’t like shots, there’s now an intranasal option for the vaccine.

Does the flu shot hurt?
Not terribly. There are four options:

  • A regular flu shot that is injected into the muscle of the upper arm
  • An intradermal shot that uses a smaller needle and is injected into the skin rather than the muscle, so it hurts less
  • A high-dose intramuscular vaccine for older adults
  • A nasal spray vaccine — this form of the vaccine, called FluMist, contains a weakened form of live virus. It’s for people who are afraid to get a shot, but not appropriate for people who don’t have strong immune systems or for pregnant women.

Cold or flu?
Of course, winter is also prime-time cold season and it can be tough to tell the difference between the two viral illnesses. Sniffling, sneezing and mild joint pain without a fever usually signal a cold, whereas a headache, severe muscle aches, exhaustion and a high fever with chills usually point to the flu.

Flu symptoms can have you bedridden for a week and feeling poorly for a couple of weeks beyond that. Those sickened by the flu feel really sick. Complications can include bacterial pneumonia, ear and sinus infections, and dehydration; the flu can also worsen chronic illnesses such as diabetes and asthma.

If you think you have the flu, see a doctor within the first 48 hours. That’s when you can get a dose of the antiviral drugs Tamiflu or Relenza, which can shorten the duration and severity of your symptoms.

This is easier said than done, but stay away from people who are coughing and sneezing, and wash your hands frequently!

Do you think it’s worthwhile to get a flu shot?

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