No one likes being sick. With its typical symptoms of fever, chills, nausea, body aches, runny nose and fatigue, influenza makes most sufferers snuggle under the covers and hope the world survives without them. Antibiotics won’t help, so those infected must rely on over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen, ibuprofen and cough syrup. The one drug approved for use, Tamiflu (oseltamivir), if taken within 48 hours of symptoms, reduces the intensity of symptoms and may shorten their duration.
According to the CDC, influenza caused the deaths of 34,200 Americans in 2019, statistically 0.1 percent of those who contracted it. While this pales in comparison to the coronavirus death rate, which is probably about 30 times that, prevention definitely is in everyone’s best interest. In this case, that means getting the flu shot.
Anyone can get the flu. Those at higher risk of having a serious course include infants, those over 65, pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems due to conditions like heart disease, cancer, diabetes or due to taking suppressants such as steroids. Preventing the illness with the vaccine dramatically reduces the risk of catching influenza, or if the flu is contracted, the vaccine usually reduces the intensity of symptoms.
Unlike some vaccines that last a lifetime, such as those against measles or polio, the flu vaccine must be taken every year. Influenza viruses mutate frequently, creating new “novel” varieties with previously unseen configurations. So even if you were vaccinated last year, it’s necessary to do it again.
There are two types of influenza vaccines — a live, attenuated influenza vaccine, and one called a recombinant influenza vaccine (the latter is for those with egg allergies). The most commonly available vaccine offers protection against two A strains and two B strains, based on what the developers predict might be the most likely culprits from the hundreds of different A and B strains out there. Sometimes, they’re right on target, and the vaccine offers great protection. Other times, not so much, and the vaccine is less effective.
Although there’s variety in the available vaccines, there’s little difference in their protective qualities. Children aged 6 months to 8 years may need two doses of vaccine while everyone else only needs one. It’s worth mentioning that for those who hate needles, there’s now a nasal spray that’s as effective as the shot. After the vaccine is administered, it takes about two weeks for the body to develop protection.
Nothing’s completely safe. Because the vaccine consists of a modified virus, there’s a low risk of actually getting the flu from the shot. Even more rarely, the vaccine sometimes causes a strange neurological problem called Guillain Barré disease. Overall, however, the complications and suffering associated with catching the flu greatly outweigh the risks of taking the vaccine.
Now let’s bust a few myths. Influenza vaccines do not cause autism. While some multiple-dose vaccine supplies use a miniscule amount of a mercury compound as a preservative, there is no toxic risk associated with its use, nor from any of the other preservatives. Also, the influenza and COVID viruses are totally different, so taking the flu shot won’t increase or decrease a person’s susceptibility or reaction to COVID.
Flu shots are available without a prescription and offered in many pharmacies, workplaces and walk-in clinics. For most people, these are excellent options. However, if you’re having your young child vaccinated, have experienced problems with flu shots in the past, are over 65 or have other serious illnesses, it’s best to check with your doctor beforehand.
Dr. Philip L. Levin is an emergency medicine specialist in Gulfport. Learn more about him at www.doctors-dreams.com