Concerned about flu season? Wondering if you and your children should (or can still) get vaccinated? Saul Hymes, MD, Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics and a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases with Stony Brook Children's Hospital, addresses the most common concerns about flu season and, more importantly, what you can do now to protect yourself and your children.
How serious is the flu this year?
The flu, or seasonal influenza virus, is extremely unpredictable. Its severity can vary widely from one season to the next depending on many things, including the strains of flu spreading, availability of vaccines, how many people get vaccinated and how well the flu vaccine is matched to the flu viruses circulating each season.
The bottom line: Take the flu seriously, take precautions, don’t worry too much, stay home if you are sick, and call your doctor if symptoms are severe or prolonged — or if you develop complications.
Who is at greatest risk?
Certain people are at greater risk for serious complications if they get the flu. They include:
How can I protect myself?
Use common sense. This includes:
However, the easiest way to protect yourself and your children is to get vaccinated.
Are the influenza vaccines safe?
You may have heard there are new flu vaccines this year. There are some new formulations, but more broadly speaking there are two flu vaccines and both are extremely safe:
Keep in mind that all of the vaccine side effects are mild and resolve within one to two days of the administration of the vaccine. Also note: the injectable vaccine no longer contains Thimerosal (mercury-containing compound) and the nasal vaccine never contained it. In rare cases, adults and children who receive the vaccine can have an allergic reaction.
Are the vaccines effective?
How well the flu vaccine works (or its ability to prevent flu illness) can range widely from season to season. The vaccine’s effectiveness also can vary depending on who is being vaccinated. At least two factors play an important role in determining the likelihood that flu vaccine will protect a person from flu illness: 1) characteristics of the person being vaccinated (such as their age and health), and 2) the similarity or "match" between the flu viruses the flu vaccine is designed to protect against and the flu viruses spreading in the community. During years when the flu vaccine is not well matched to circulating viruses, it’s possible that no benefit from flu vaccination may be observed. During years when there is a good match between the flu vaccine and circulating viruses, it’s possible to measure substantial benefits from vaccination in terms of preventing flu illness. However, even during years when the vaccine match is very good, the benefits of vaccination will vary across the population, depending on characteristics of the person being vaccinated and even, potentially, which vaccine was used.
Each season researchers try to determine how well flu vaccines work to regularly assess and confirm the value of flu vaccination as a public health intervention. Study results about how well a flu vaccine works can vary based on study design, outcome(s) measured, population studied and the season in which the flu vaccine was studied. These differences can make it difficult to compare one study’s results with another’s.
While determining how well a flu vaccine works is challenging, in general, recent studies have supported the conclusion that flu vaccination benefits public health, especially when the flu vaccine is well matched to circulating flu viruses.*
Why should you get your influenza vaccine?
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that everyone over six months of age be vaccinated unless they have a known allergy to the flu vaccine. In addition, if you have a severe (life-threatening, with wheezing or throat narrowing) allergy to eggs or a history of Guillain-Barre syndrome (a neurologic disease) after a flu vaccine in the past, consult with your doctor before being vaccinated.
There are two main reasons to get vaccinated:
Vaccination helps protect you as well as those around you who cannot be vaccinated. All parents should be vaccinated to help protect their children. The flu vaccine is effective and safe, and it is not too late to get it!