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Want to Avoid the Flu This Season? Be Sure to Get Vaccinated

Influenza, commonly known as the flu, is an illness that can affect people at any age and from any walk of life. If untreated, influenza can lead to very serious complications, including hospitalization or even death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 1 million Americans are hospitalized and as many as 49,000 Americans die each year from flu-related complications. The CDC estimates that for the 2015-2016 flu season, the vaccine prevented approximately 5.1 million flu illnesses, 2.5 million flu-associated medical visits, and 71,000 flu-associated hospitalizations. Now that flu season is upon us, it is important to protect yourself by getting a flu shot.

Who needs to get a flu vaccine?
The CDC recommends that everyone who is 6 months of age and older should receive a flu vaccine each year. It is especially important for pregnant women, children, the elderly, and people with certain chronic illnesses to receive their annual vaccine to avoid serious complications from getting influenza.

Why do I need to get a flu shot every year?
The influenza virus is constantly changing. Changes to the virus may happen slowly over time or, more rarely, there may be a significant abrupt change. Because of these changes, your immunity from having the flu or getting a flu vaccine in the past may not protect you for the next year. By getting a vaccine each year, you are giving your body the help it needs to protect itself. It takes your body about two weeks to build up full immunity against the flu virus after receiving your vaccine, so it is important to receive your vaccine before you can become exposed to the flu.

Can I get the flu from receiving the vaccine?
No, receiving the vaccine will not give you the flu. Some people do have minor reactions for a couple of days after receiving these vaccines, but they are not symptoms of the flu. However, you may still get influenza even if you have received the vaccine, but most likely it will be milder or of shorter duration.

I’ve heard about new types of flu vaccine. Which one is best for me?
The flu vaccine used to be a one-size-fits-all shot. In recent years, however, several new vaccine products have been developed to improve the ease of administration or to better protect certain individuals from the flu. Here’s a summary of products that describes who may benefit from receiving these vaccines:

  • For most people:
    • The best choice is one of two types of flu shots — trivalent or quadrivalent. Trivalent vaccines protect against three strains of the influenza virus, while the newer quadrivalent vaccines protect against four strains of the influenza virus. Trivalent vaccines and one quadrivalent product are recommended for anyone 6 months of age and older, while other quadrivalent vaccines are approved for use in people 3 years of age and older.
  • Older adults (65 years of age and older):
    • The high-dose flu vaccine has four times the amount of each strain of the inactivated flu virus as the regular dosage and may be given to certain adults 65 years of age and older to improve immunity to the flu. Compared to the regular flu vaccine, however, some side effects are reported more frequently with this product.
    • Another option for people at least 65 years of age or older is a vaccine that contains an adjuvant, which is an ingredient that increases the patient’s immune response to the vaccine. In this flu vaccine, the adjuvant is squalene oil. Squalene is a natural substance that is found in both animals and plants. A Canadian observational study found that the adjuvanted vaccine prevents more cases of flu than nonadjuvanted vaccines. If you are over 65 years of age, ask your doctor or pharmacist if you should receive a high dose or an adjuvanted flu vaccine.
  • People with an allergy to eggs:
    • One type of flu vaccine has a different manufacturing process than is used to make other flu vaccines. This type of flu vaccine may be used in people between 18 and 49 years of age who have an allergy to eggs or other ingredients used in the manufacturing process. If you are allergic to eggs or have had a reaction to a previous flu vaccine, talk to your doctor or pharmacist to see if this is the best option for you.
  • People who are uncomfortable getting shots:
    • Although most flu vaccine injections are given into the arm muscle, another type of flu shot may be given intradermally (into the skin), using a smaller needle. This may be given to adults 18 to 64 years of age who have concerns about getting an injection with the larger needle usually used for giving the flu shot.
    • Another choice for people uncomfortable getting shots is the nasal spray form of the vaccine made from live attenuated viruses. This means it uses a weakened form of the live virus that will not cause you to be infected with the flu when sprayed into your nose. However, based on recent research, the CDC recommends that the nasal spray flu vaccine should not be used during the 2016-2017 season.

When should I get my flu vaccine?
Because it takes about two weeks for protection to develop after vaccination, you should plan to get vaccinated before the flu season begins, usually by October. However, you can get vaccinated against the flu anytime during the current flu season. Getting the vaccine protects you from the flu virus usually for several months up to a year. If you have questions about which vaccine is best for you, be sure to talk to your doctor or pharmacist. The most important step you can take to help you avoid the flu this year is to receive a flu vaccine!

Want more information? Check out these important resources:

* This story has been updated for the 2016-2017 flu season.

By Mallory Snyder, Pharm.D., M.P.H., PGY1 Health-System Administration Resident, University of Minnesota Medical Center — Fairview, Minn.