Yes, it’s flu season again. And yes, the best way to protect yourself from coming down with the virus is still a vaccine.
Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, made that message loud and clear Thursday at the annual National Foundation for Infectious Diseases press conference on flu vaccines.
“If we could increase vaccination coverage in this country by just five percent more, that would prevent about 800,000 illnesses and nearly 10,000 hospitalizations,” said Frieden. “Flu vaccine is one of the best buys in public health.”
How 2016’s vaccine is different than last year
This year, there are two basic types of flu vaccines: one that protects against three strains of flu, and one that protects against four.
Both flu vaccines protect against the strains seen early in the season in the U.S., including the commonly known H1N1 (swine flu), H3N3 and a Type B strain. The only difference between the two is that the “quadrivalent” vaccine also protects against a second Type B strain.
While it seems logical that more coverage is better, the CDC doesn’t have a recommendation for which one to get ― just that you scoop up whichever shot is available.
“The problem is that a vaccination deferred is often a vaccination forgotten,” Frieden explained. In other words, it’s most important that you get a shot soon rather than holding out for one you might prefer.
There is one big change to the CDC’s flu shot recommendations: People who were counting on the nasal spray form of the vaccine will have to settle for a shot. The CDC recommends only the injection for preventing the flu for the 2016-17 season after concerns arose last year about the effectiveness of the spray.
Of the 144 million Americans who got vaccinated against the flu last year, about 20 million opted for the nasal spray.
Don’t wait until the last minute to get your shot
Last year’s flu season was moderate; there were fewer doctor’s visits, hospitalizations and deaths linked to flu and pneumonia compared to the preceding three seasons. The 2015-16 season started picking up in late December and continued to swell through early March, but don’t wait until the beginning of this December to get inoculated.
For one reason, it takes time to build the antibodies to fight the flu. In adults, the shot takes effect after about two weeks. For kids under eight who may need two shots to be fully vaccinated, injections have to be spaced more than four weeks apart, so the earlier they get the first shot, the better.
Secondly, there’s no way to predict when you’re going to come into contact with someone who has the flu and could spread it to you. It’s best to be vaccinated before the virus starts sweeping through your community.
Ideally, the CDC says, everyone should get their flu vaccine by the end of October, although shots received later in the year will still be beneficial.
Flu shots save lives
Unlike the common cold, the flu can progress from congestion and fatigue to more serious symptoms, like fever, chills and muscle aches that can knock you out for several days.
Medical complications caused by the flu include pneumonia, blood infections, diarrhea and seizures. In worst case scenarios, the flu can lead to death, especially for the very young or the very old.
While the CDC does not directly count deaths related to influenza, their analyses estimate that they can range from 3,000 to about 49,000 people per year. Vaccines can prevent this: During the 2012-13 season, over 100 children died of the flu or flu-related complications, but 90 percent of those children did not receive the flu vaccine.
The vaccine is also extremely important for pregnant women, who are at an increased risk of hospitalization and death from flu. In addition to protecting them from the flu, the vaccine is also linked to the prevention of preterm delivery and gives young infants immunity during the first six months of their life, when they are too young to get the vaccine themselves.
There’s also evidence to show that vaccines can prevent flu-related complications, like heart attack and stroke in older populations, said Dr. Wilbur Chen, chief of adult clinical studies within the Center for Vaccine Development.
People ages 65 and older should also make sure they’re up to date with their pneumococcal vaccine too, which can prevent pneumococcal pneumonia, a serious flu-related complication.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that the vaccine will 100 percent protect you from the virus. However, people who get the vaccine are less likely to get ill and are less likely to spread the disease to others. If you get vaccinated and still end up with the flu, it’ll probably be less serious than it would have been had you not gotten the shot.
Nearly everyone should get a flu shot
Anyone over the ages of six months old who doesn’t have medical conditions that would cause them to react badly to the shot should get one.
The CDC lists special populations for whom a severe bout of flu could cause serious medical complications, saying these groups should be prioritized in the event that there’s a shortage of vaccines. In no particular order, they are children ages six months to five years old; people 50 years old and over; immunosuppressed people (including those who are immunosuppressed because of medicine or HIV); pregnant women; children and teens on long-term aspirin therapy; nursing home residents; people with asthma, diabetes or other chronic diseases; the extremely obese; and Native Americans/Alaska Natives.
People who have severe, life-threatening allergies to the vaccine, or anyone who has ever had Guillain-Barre syndrome, will have to skip their shot and rely on theherd immunity of those around them to be protected.
During the 2015-16 flu season, about 46 percent of Americans over the age of six months got vaccinated, a slight decrease from the year before.
“It’s not perfect; we wish it were better,” said Frieden about the vaccine. “But it will cut your risk of flu, if the match is good, by at least a half. And that’s far better than anything else you can do to protect yourself against the flu.”