Last week I was hit hard with strep throat. It crept up on me in the middle of the night — a horrible, miserable sore throat that prevented me from sleeping most of the night. By morning, I was exhausted and barely able to speak. Thankfully, a rapid strep test was positive and 24 hours after my first dose of antibiotic, I was feeling 100 times better.
Guess what is worse than strep throat? Influenza. It is awful. Body aches and chills that ten blankets won’t stop. How do I know? Because several years ago, I got hit with it. I was stuck on the couch or in bed for a week straight. If I could have enjoyed television or a good book, it would have been kind of nice to take a week off of work. But for the first few days, I couldn’t even enjoy People magazine and soap operas. I was just too darn sick.
That year? That year I got a horrible round of flu? It was the one year that I said “oh bother” to the flu shot. I was too busy, too tired, too whatever to take 15 minutes out of my day to get vaccinated and I paid for it. And after that year, I said, never again will I miss the vaccine. Come hell or high water, I’ll get me that shot. And I have. Well, technically, this year I got the nasal spray but its all the same. I’m covered. And my kids will be next week, and that is a relief to this mama.
For me, getting a vaccine against the flu is a no-brainer. But I know that there are a lot of people who really, really hate the flu vaccine. People who will get all other vaccinations will simply refuse to vaccinate against the flu. Why? The flu shot gets a bad rap. Its the subject of a lot of misconceptions and myths. Here, I plan to set the record straight on a few things in the hopes that you will feel at ease getting yourself, and your kids, vaccinated.
1. Influenza can be bad. Before we can talk about getting you vaccinated, we have to understand what we are vaccinating against. Influenza is a contagious respiratory infection caused by the influenza virus. Symptoms usually include fever, body aches, cough, chills, and all around misery. The flu can also lead to other complications, like pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus infections and ear infections. Sometimes, those complications are life threatening. Do you know that in 1900, the most common cause of death was from influenza or related-pneumonia? Yes, the flu can kill. It’s only the beginning of flu season, and we are already seeing reports of flu-related death. Just a few days ago, an elementary school child died from flu complications in North Carolina. Idaho has reported 2 deaths; South Carolina – 1. And last year, ten children died in one week from the flu. Why wouldn’t you want to do all that you can to prevent sickness — even death — in yourself and your kids?
2. The vaccine works (if not perfectly). Let’s just get it out there. Yes. You can get the vaccine and still get the flu. It’s not perfect. The effectiveness of the vaccine depends on two key factors: 1) the characteristics of the person and 2) whether the flu strain circulating around this year matches the strains in the vaccine for this year. You see, influenza is a clever little virus, mutating and changing every season. The smarty pants who make the vaccines look at what strains of influenza are anticipated for each season and develop the vaccines to combat anticipated strains. Now, if the anticipated ones and the real ones are closely matched, the vaccine is more effective. And if that darn virus tricked us and an unexpected strain appears in the community, well, the vaccine does not work as well. But, even if you do get the flu after the vaccine, you may have a milder infection and fewer complications. If I am going to get the flu, I prefer the mildest, gentlest form out there. Don’t you?
3. Vaccine choices. There are two vaccines available. One protects against three influenza strains (trivalent vaccine) and the other protects against four strains (quadrivalent vaccine). Generally, if you are between the ages of 2 and 49( and healthy and not pregnant) you can choose to have either an injection (the ol’ “flu shot”) or the nasal spray. The flu shot does not contain any live virus particles. You can NOT get the flu from the flu shot. You just can’t. The nasal spray, on the other hand, uses live — but weakened — virus particles. You should not get the flu from the flu mist, though, because it uses live virus particles, there is some evidence that you might be able to give the virus to close contacts. My suggestion is to avoid blowing your nose on other people for a day or two after you get the mist. The current recommendation is for children ages 2-8 to get the mist because it appears to be more effective for them. I got the mist because I don’t like needles.
4. Vaccine safety. The vaccines are safe. Most reactions are minor. From the shot, you might expect to see redness, soreness, and swelling. For the mist, kids and adults may both experience runny noses, headache or cough. There have been reports of kids also getting a fever or aches too. But the really life threatening events are very rare. Make sure to talk to your doctor about which type of vaccine is appropriate for you and your kids. People with egg allergies can safely get vaccinated but your doctor must know about your allergy so you get the right vaccine. And if you have had a previous bad reaction to vaccines, or have certain underlying conditions, you may not be a candidate for vaccination.
5. GBS. A word about Guillain-Barre syndrome. GBS is a weird and very (very) rare disorder in which a person’s immune system attacks itself and causes muscle weakness and paralysis. In 1976, there was a very slight increase in reported GBS among people who got the swine flu vaccine. This has, I believe, led to this belief that the flu vaccine really poses a risk to everyone of developing GBS. Look, GBS occurs in individuals who do not get vaccinated just as it can in those who do. It is very rare and most people who develop it do so after a respiratory illness or after being ill with diarrhea. So, while yes, it can temporally happen after vaccination, it is not a syndrome that is created by vaccination. I am not downplaying the seriousness of GBS. I just don’t want you to refuse the vaccine because you think that the risk is substantial. Still worried? Talk to your doctor about the risks and let her know if you have ever had GBS in the past.
So. Go forth. Talk to your doctor about getting a flu shot (or mist) and about getting it for your kids too. And, for an extra dose of protection, make sure you wash your hands, don’t spit or sneeze on others, and stay home if you feel like crud.
Here’s hoping for a flu free season for you and yours!