How bad will this year’s flu season be? It’s impossible to predict, and thus the only safe thing to do is get protected now. Which camp are you in? It seems there are two groups of people on opposite sides of the fence regarding flu shots. There are those that adamantly state something like, “No way! The last time I got one of those, I got the flu!” These people ignore the strong science that is responsible for the manufacturing of the flu shots from dead parts of the season’s expected flu viruses. Dead parts of viruses can’t give you influenza. The other camp is anxious to get their flu shot each year because they understand the very real danger of not getting it.
People sometimes choose to ignore science, but real-life stories are powerful. One of the most telling and emotional videos favoring getting annual flu shots was on the CDC Web site a few years ago. It depicted a woman walking down the sidewalk of a residential neighborhood holding hands with her young child. With a lump in my throat, I read about how she used to have two children, but one had died of influenza. The living one had been vaccinated.
The sobering fact is that an average of about 23,000 (4,000-49,000) people dies of influenza complications each year in the United States. We often don’t hear much about it unless there is a new twist like the 2009 H1N1 Flu or concerns about Bird Flu. We just cannot take thousands of deaths for granted each year.
Influenza symptoms are nonspecific and can include high fever, headache, cough, sore throat, fatigue, runny nose, body aches, diarrhea, and vomiting. Some people might only have a low grade fever and runny nose, while others might develop complications like pneumonia that lead to hospitalization and sometimes even to death. People who are very young, elderly, or who are immuno-compromised are at higher risk.
Timing can explain many people’s confusion. Let’s say you get exposed to the flu virus at work by a coughing coworker but don’t realize it. You feel fine and a couple of days later your primary care physician (PCP) convinces you to have a flu shot. A few days after the shot you develop flu-like symptoms and complain vehemently that the flu shot gave you the flu! However, the virus from your coworker actually gave you the flu, not the shot. If you had received the flu vaccine a couple of weeks or more before being exposed to your sick coworker, you probably wouldn’t have contracted the illness.
Others say they got a shot one time and they still got the flu. No vaccine is perfect, and it is possible (but much less likely) to get the flu after vaccination. Much more likely, however, is that the vaccinated person got a “flu-like” illness with some of the same symptoms as influenza A or B, the serious bad guys.
“I’m pregnant. Can I still get a flu shot?” Yes! It’s especially important for you to get vaccinated because you are at higher risk when pregnant. (You should get the shot, not the nasal vaccine.) There’s no recommendation for pregnant women or those with chronic medical conditions that put them at higher risk to get special permission from their doctor to get a flu shot at a work site clinic or pharmacy.
If you think you have flu symptoms this winter, please see your PCP right away. There are medications to treat flu victims, but they only help if started very early in the course of the disease. Four thousand to forty-nine thousand people will die of the flu in the United States this year. Don’t be one of them! Which camp are you in? Can we make a deal? Even if you think maybe you don’t want a flu vaccine, would you please at least talk to your PCP about it? Let’s fight this thing! Visit www.cdc.gov/flu for more information about the 2015-2016 flu season.
Dr. Fleming is the Medical Director of The Jane Pauley Community Health Center (www.JanePauleyCHC.com), a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) with offices in Indianapolis, Anderson, Greenfield, and Shelbyville. Ideas for this column can be e-mailed to Dr. Fleming at AskDrFleming@gmail.com. Or you can write your medical questions to Dr. Fleming at AskDrFleming, 5317 E. 16th Street, Indianapolis, IN 46218. On written correspondence, please include your name and city (names will not be published).