A few years ago, a college freshman was admitted to our hospital with septic shock, a life-threatening condition resulting from a body-wide infection -- in his case, flu-related pneumonia. Unfortunately, this previously healthy, 19-year-old football player had not gotten a seasonal flu shot, and he ultimately died from the flu.
Tragedies like this illustrate how important it is for everyone to take the one simple step that can prevent serious illness and even death: get a flu shot every year. In addition to protecting yourself, getting vaccinated against the flu helps protect your loved ones, coworkers, and others who cross your path.
If you are still not convinced, consider the following:
1. Getting the flu feels awful. The seasonal flu is a contagious illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the respiratory tract. Its main symptoms include high fever, cough, and muscle aches that last about five days. People often feel weak, tired, and generally sick for two to three additional weeks.
2. The flu can be extremely dangerous. Having the flu puts you at risk of secondary bacterial infections and can lead to such complications as pneumonia, severe ear infections (particularly in young children), heart failure, encephalitis-like infections of the brain, and death.
3. Vaccine options are available. Most flu vaccines involve an egg-based production process; however, an egg-free option is available for those concerned about egg allergies. You can also request a flu shot made without thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative found in multi-dose vials of vaccine. Other alternatives include a nasal spray flu vaccine approved for most healthy, non-pregnant people ages two through 49 years, and a high-dose flu shot designed for those 65 and older.
4. The flu vaccine cannot cause the flu or autism. Such fears are completely unfounded. A large body of research shows no link between vaccines and autism, and neither a flu shot nor nasal spray vaccine can cause the flu. Flu shots are made from dead influenza virus, with the exception of one type that is produced without any virus at all; viruses contained in the nasal spray are weakened and cannot cause the flu.
It takes two to three weeks for the vaccine's protection to take effect, so it may seem like you're getting ill from the flu shot if during that time you are exposed to influenza and come down with the flu.
5. The flu spreads like wildfire. Influenza easily spreads via the respiratory route, such as when an infected individual coughs or sneezes near you. You can also get the flu by touching something contaminated with flu virus -- think subway pole or doorknob -- and then touching your mouth or nose.
Because it takes about two days to develop symptoms after being exposed to influenza, you can spread the flu before realizing you are sick. Likewise, many people with the flu may never feel ill, yet are still contagious.
6. Anyone can get the flu. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that everyone age six months or older receive an annual flu vaccination, with rare exception. (Only people with severe, life-threatening allergies to flu vaccine cannot get a flu shot; the nasal spray has more restrictions, as noted on the CDC website.)
7. Getting vaccinated can help protect yourself -- and others. Vaccination is crucial for those at high risk for developing flu-related complications, as well as those who come into contact with high-risk individuals. People at high risk include newborns, young children, pregnant women, and older adults; individuals with heart or kidney disease, emphysema, asthma, and other chronic medical conditions; and those with weakened immune systems, such as people with AIDS or cancer, or who are on steroids.
The optimal time to get vaccinated is in October or November, before people start traveling and gathering together for the winter holidays.
8. The flu vaccine gets updated every year. Influenza is a "smart" virus that constantly changes. You need to get vaccinated every year because the flu vaccine is updated annually to accommodate these changes and provide as close a match as possible to the circulating flu viruses.
9. Getting vaccinated is the best way to reduce your chances of getting the flu. Studies have shown that the flu vaccine can reduce your risk of flu illness by about 50 percent to 60 percent when there is a good match between the vaccine and circulating flu viruses. Last year's flu season was unusually bad because the predominant influenza strain changed slightly after the vaccine had been produced, resulting in lower overall effectiveness. However, the CDC reports that this year's vaccine appears to be a good match for all of the circulating flu viruses.
You may have heard about two new studies suggesting that people on cholesterol-lowering statin drugs have a weakened response to flu vaccine. However, further research is needed to confirm their findings, and we still strongly recommend the vaccine for those on statin therapy.
Even if you do get the flu, the vaccine provides a measure of protection resulting in milder disease and fewer complications requiring hospitalization. The vaccine has also been found to offer protection against congestive heart failure and stroke.
10. Possible side effects are mild. After a flu shot, some people get a sore arm or low-grade fever, which may be alleviated with an over-the-counter pain reliever. The nasal spray sometimes causes mild, short-lived reactions, such as a runny nose, nasal congestion, cough, or headache.
11. Getting vaccinated is convenient. You can get vaccinated at your doctor's office, but you can also receive a flu shot or nasal spray at one of the many pharmacies, grocery stores, and walk-in clinics that now offer vaccines. To find a convenient location, just plug your ZIP code into the "Flu Vaccine Finder" at Flu.gov. No more excuses.
Brian S. Koll, M.D.
Executive Medical Director for Infection Prevention and Control
The Mount Sinai Health System
Madelynn Azar-Cavanagh, MD, MPH
Medical Director of Employee Health, Safety, and Wellness
The Mount Sinai Health System