Fall is Here! Time to Get a Flu Shot

It’s the official start of fall, my favorite season. The leaves are beginning  to turn into their brilliant fall mélange of gold and orange and crimson. The morning air has taken on a new welcome crispness, filled with the fresh scent of leaves underfoot. It’s the time of hot spiced apple cider, pumpkin carving, and hay rides.

And just about time to get your seasonal flu shot.

Wait, maybe that was not part of your fall plans? Here’s why you should add it to your seasonal to do list, along with securing costumes for Halloween.

1. A flu vaccination is recommended for everyone over 6 months of age. “Everyone 6 months of age and older should get a flu vaccine every season,” according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

The only potential exception: people under 18 with severe allergies to eggs. For those 18 and older, there are now egg-free flu vaccines available.

Having been vaccinated against the flu before does not protect well against the seasonal flu. This is because flu viruses undergo drift–rapid genetic changes in their surface antigens. These changes allow flu viruses to evade our immune systems, over and over again.

New flu vaccine are created each year, to best match the new flu viruses expected to dominate in the upcoming season.

My daughter Sydney rubbing noses with her paternal grandmother.

2. The flu can be incredibly dangerous, especially for grandparents and other older relatives. 

As parents, we know what good little disease vectors our children can be. Kids just love to cuddle and give kisses when they are feeling a little bit sick… and while their darling little noses are dripping everywhere.

Unfortunately, these tender cuddles can lead to serious illness, especially for older relatives.

According to the CDC, the flu kills somewhere an estimated 3,000 to 49,000 people each year, over 90% of whom are 65 and older. The risk is especially pronounced for elderly over 75.

The number of deaths varies considerably from year to year, partly because the virulence of dominant flu strains varies each season, but also because the flu often kills silently, by causing secondary infections with bacterial pneumonia, and by aggravating pre-existing health conditions like heart failure or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Other high risk groups include:

  • Young children
  • Pregnant women
  • People with underlying health conditions, including diabetes
  • Health workers
  • Farm workers

3. The flu vaccine is safe. The most common side effects from vaccination are brief flu-like symptoms, such as a runny nose, headache, nasal congestion, and slight fever. These symptoms typically last for 3-7 days, and are quite mild compared to coming down with the flu.

Side effects occur most often in children who have not previously been vaccinated against the flu. In adults, side effects are uncommon. And for everyone, severe reactions are exceedingly rare.

4. Because flu deaths are common, the press pays little attention to them. Novelty creates news. Media attention a terrible yardstick for determining actual risk.

For instance, compare the yearly death toll of the flu–3,000-49,000 deaths each year –to the number of deaths from the 2014-2015 measles outbreak, which has attracted a ton of press. So far, the 2014-2015 measles outbreak in the U.S. has led to just a single confirmed death.

Am I against vaccinating for the measles? Of course not! That measles death was a tragedy. And more importantly, a completely preventable tragedy.

My point: we also need to pay attention to deaths from the flu. Yes, flu-related deaths are relatively common and happen every year. But that does not mean we should see them as inevitable. And it certainly does not mean we should fail to take steps to prevent them.

5. No pokes for most children over the age of 2, or adults under age 50. Forcing a reluctant child to get a shot is one of the least fun aspects of being a parent. Who doesn’t dread the protests and the tears?

First approved by the FDA in 2003, nasal spray vaccines are now available and approved for most children over the age of two. (See a list of groups who should not receive the nasal spray here.)

My son got the nasal vaccine last year, and it was a breeze. No tears, no freak-outs. Just a quick squirt up a nostril and done. He actually asked for a repeat dose, probably because he received so much praise for staying calm.

Unlike shots, nasal spray vaccines contain a live, weakened version of the flu. Several randomized clinical trials suggest that live vaccines may be about 50% more effective than standard flu shots, at least against certain strains of the flu, including the extremely nasty influenza A H3N2 strain. When H3N2 predominates, the flu-linked death rate typically doubles.

Some evidence does suggest that the nasal spray, as currently formulated, is not as effective as shots against H1N1.

For the upcoming season 2015-2016, H3N2 and Influenza B are expected to dominate, so the nasal spray may be the best option.

6. The winter cold season is hard enough without getting the flu. Last winter, I do not think my family went a week without at least one of the four of us being sick with a cold or stomach bug. My husband and I each went through a bottle of NyQuil that winter.

Our neighbors who have four children had it even worse. All four of their kids managed to come down with ear infections at the same time. Another friend was bedridden with pneumonia twice last winter.

Being a parent is hard. Being a parent who is knocked out by the flu and has a sick kid or two to care for is brutal.

So, let’s all get our flu shots or flu mists this year!





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