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:
- People over age 65
- Young children under the age of five and especially those under the age of two
- Pregnant women
- People with certain health conditions (such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease)
- People who live in facilities like nursing homes
How can I protect myself?
Use common sense. This includes:
- Avoiding those who are ill
- Covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze
- Washing your hands frequently and thoroughly
- Staying home from work if you are sick
- Keeping your children out of school and after-school activities if they are sick
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:
- The inactivated (killed) virus vaccine, which is given by injection. This is safe for people older than six months. The common side effects are redness and soreness at the vaccination site. You cannot get an infection from a killed virus, so this vaccine does not cause the flu. This year, there are two main types of injected vaccine, one with protection against three strains of flu and one with protection against four strains. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) does not recommend one over the other, so whichever vaccine your doctor or pharmacy has in stock is okay to receive.
- There is also the nasal spray, which contains a live-attenuated (weakened) virus. This is safe for people from ages two to 49. Common side effects include runny nose, cough and tiredness. This vaccine does not cause a full influenza infection. This year all nasal flu vaccines induce protection against four strains of the virus.
- It is also worth noting that this year, for the first time and available only to adults over age 18, there is an injectable flu vaccine made entirely in the lab. This method uses no eggs, which makes it completely safe for patients who are allergic to eggs.
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:
- To protect yourself from the flu and its complications. The flu can cause five to seven days of illness with high fevers, painful muscle aches, cough, sore throat and exhaustion. People sick with the flu will miss work or school and need to be cared for. The flu also can lead to complications like pneumonia, which may require treatment with antibiotics or even hospitalization.
- To protect those around you. Children less than six months old, who cannot be vaccinated yet, are at an increased risk of contracting the flu and are at a very high risk for complications. By vaccinating the parents of such children and other adults and children around them, we will help to protect them. There are other groups who either cannot be vaccinated or are at increased risk of complications from the flu, and by getting vaccinated you help protect them further.
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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