What You Need to Know About the Flu: Your Top Questions Answered (11/7/13)
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.
This year’s season is still ramping up, but last year’s season, from September 2012 to May 2013, was quite severe and received lots of publicity. In New York State alone, 9,515 people were hospitalized because of the flu; 2,171 of them were children. Fourteen child deaths in New York were tied to the flu last season, and across the U.S. there were 149 reported child deaths due to influenza. Keep in mind that this is a small number compared to the millions of children and adults who contract the flu. But be aware that every year thousands of adults and a handful of children do die from it.
So far this season (October 5 to October 26, 2013) there has been only sporadic influenza activity throughout most of the country as well as in New York State. So far, there have been 40 confirmed hospitalizations due to influenza across the state, eight of those involving children. There have been no reported deaths among children. This is better than last season, but this year’s flu season is just beginning — making now the ideal time to get yourself and your children vaccinated!
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?
The influenza vaccine is very effective at preventing influenza overall as well as preventing severe disease and complications. Last year, it was about 70 percent effective in preventing disease, which meant that seven out of 10 people who received a vaccine wouldn’t get the flu. Even in years when the vaccine has been less well-matched against one or more of the circulating strains, the vaccine is still important in protecting against the other circulating strains.
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!
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