The Who, What, and Why of the Influenza Vaccine

It’s that time of year again: flu season. Every year as summer winds down and we begin to spend more time indoors, viruses such as colds and the flu become more common, spreading easily among us.

The seasonal influenza vaccine has been available in North America for many years but it’s still not accepted by many people who consider themselves to be in good health. Although there is wide-spread acceptance of the importance of influenza vaccinations for people with chronic health care problems and for seniors, those who are generally healthy, including health care professionals, tend to feel that the flu vaccine is not for them.

Who should be vaccinated?

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that everyone six months of age and older who can be vaccinated against influenza should be. However, many facilities provide vaccines to highest risk groups first, particularly if the vaccine supply is limited or comes in divided shipments. In these cases, those who should be vaccinated first are people who are:

  • 50 years of age or older
  • managing a chronic illness such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart disease, or diabetes, to name just a few
  • between six months and 18 years of age and are receiving long-term aspirin therapy
  • immune-suppressed because of medications or illness
  • pregnant
  • morbidly obese
  • residing in a long-term care or chronic-care facility
  • of Native American ethnicity
  • working in the health care industry
  • caregivers to seniors or young children, particularly children who are younger than six months old
  • caregivers to persons with illnesses that are at high risk for complications should they develop influenza, or people who cannot be vaccinated at all

Notice the importance the CDC places on caregivers, including health care professionals. This is because caregivers and those who work in health care work directly with vulnerable people who can either easily be infected or who can pass on the infection if they are ill. The protection goes both ways: If you are vaccinated, the risk of contracting or spreading the flu is reduced.

Myths about “the flu” and the vaccine

The term “flu” is often used without much consideration as to what it really means. Often, people will say that they had a stomach flu or, after feeling out of sorts for a day or two, that they were home with the flu. However, true influenza (also known as the flu) is not a gastrointestinal-related illness and is not something that makes someone feel out of sorts for a day or two. Influenza is a serious respiratory illness that can cause serious – even fatal – consequences.

Debunking two of the most common influenza myths:

Myth: Getting the flu builds immunity

An argument many people give against getting the vaccine is that they want to develop a natural immunity to the seasonal flu. The reality is that since the flu is seasonal, getting the flu one year does not make you immune to getting it again the next year. It is a different virus. The only thing that will protect you from getting the seasonal flu is the vaccine that was developed for it.

Myth: The flu vaccine can give me the flu

Some people believe that the flu vaccine can actually cause the flu. This is not true, however. The vaccine is made from a dead virus; therefore is nothing that can cause illness. There’s no denying that some people feel sick after getting an injection. There are some reasons this could happen:

  • It takes two weeks for the vaccine to take full effect. If you are exposed to the influenza virus, you may become ill although it will likely be not as severe as you would be had you not been vaccinated.
  • You may have been exposed to a virus just before or around the time that you received your vaccination.
  • You may have caught a flu strain that was not in the vaccine.
  • You may have a weakened immune system that didn’t allow the vaccine to take full effect.

How sick can the flu make you?

Illness from influenza can range from discomfort that lasts from a few days to a couple of weeks, to severe complications. The most common complications from the flu are pneumonia, bronchitis, and ear infections. Of course, people with chronic diseases, particularly respiratory illnesses, are at a higher risk of developing a complication like pneumonia or bronchitis. Severe complications like sepsis, which can be fatal, can also occur.

Who should not get the influenza vaccine?

Not everyone can receive the influenza vaccine and in some cases, people can get one type (the injection) but not the other type (the nasal spray). Those who cannot or should not be vaccinated generally include people who:

  • have a severe allergy to chicken eggs
  • have had a severe reaction to an influenza vaccination
  • are younger than six months of age

According to the CDC, people with a history of Guillain–Barré Syndrome that occurred after receiving an influenza vaccine and who are not at risk for severe illness from influenza should generally not be vaccinated.

Since the nasal spray is a live (weakened) virus, there are several groups of people who should not receive it. You can find the full list on the CDC website, but the most common ones are people who:

  • have asthma
  • have had a bad reaction to the vaccine in the past
  • have a weakened immune system
  • are pregnant

Although the seasonal influenza vaccine cannot and does not guarantee 100 percent protection against the contagious illness, it can decrease the chances and reduce the severity of the flu if you do get it.

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