Why You Should Get the Flu Vaccine

60 year old getting flu jab.
60 year old getting flu jab.

By Laura McMullen for U.S. News

In January, the roughly 700 cases of the flu, including a few flu-related deaths, in Boston prompted Mayor Thomas Menino to declare a public health emergency for the city. At the worst of the outbreak, community health centers and primary care physician's offices were flooded with sick patients. Even at hospitals, people had to wait more than a day to get admitted for severe symptoms.

"We had more patients awaiting admission to the hospital, which was completely full, than we had beds for many mornings in a row," said Paul Biddinger, chief of the Massachusetts General Hospital's Division of Emergency Preparedness, at a news conference last week at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Biddinger treated many of these patients during the outbreak and said they often seemed shocked by how awful they felt and concerned that they spread the virus to loved ones. Similar to treating car accident victims whose injuries could have been prevented or lessened had they worn a seat belt, Biddinger described the regret he felt seeing infected flu patients whose illness could have been prevented had they received the flu vaccine.

In total, 45 percent of the U.S. population ages 6 months and older received the flu vaccine during the 2012-2013 season, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At the event, held by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, medical experts stressed the importance of getting that other 55 percent vaccinated.

Are you one of the vaccine holdouts? Below are six rebuttals to the common reasons people pass on the flu shot and risk infection.

I'm young and healthy. So what? Influenza can strike the healthiest of people and make them very sick. In 2010, the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices issued a universal recommendation that everyone 6 months of age and older get the annual flu vaccine.

I never get the flu. Never say never. As Howard Koh, assistant secretary for health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services pointed out at the conference, "Flu season is predictably unpredictable." While 2011 may have been a mild season, think back to the deadly 2009 H1N1 pandemic, or just last year, when flu season hit early and intensely.

So what if I get the flu? I'm tough. Hypothetically, let's say you don't mind the fever, cough, sore throat, fatigue and other flu symptoms. You have no qualms with feeling sick enough to miss work or school. You're not even minutely concerned of complications that may result from the flu, such as pneumonia and bronchitis. Fair enough, but consider this: "We vaccinate not only to protect ourselves, but to protect the people around us," said William Schaffner, professor and chairman of the Department of Preventative Medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn. "And when people realize that, 'Oh, [getting the vaccine] means I can't give influenza to any member of my family or co-workers or my pals the gym or whatever,' that gives them a lot of motivation, because no one wants to give anyone an illness."

I've gotten the flu shot before, and it made me sick. Some people insist you can get the flu from the flu vaccine, which is flat out untrue. "It's an extraordinarily persistent urban and rural myth," Schaffner said. "Every study of influenza indicates that you can't get the flu from the flu vaccine. And it's not conceptually possible, either."

Schaffner, who is also the past-president of NFID, suspects two reasons for why people insist they get sick after receiving the vaccine. For one, there are a few minor symptoms some people experience after the injection, including soreness and a low-grade fever. But these symptoms are mild and don't last very long –- and they certainly won't lead to the flu.

The other reason people may associate the flu shot with feeling sick? Schaffner pointed out that sometimes folks just happen to catch one of the many cold viruses that circulate and attribute it to the flu vaccination they received a few days earlier. But alas, the timing of the vaccination and catching the cold was just an unhappy coincidence.

The vaccine probably isn't covered by my insurance. Actually, under the Affordable Care Act, many health plans cover the influenza vaccine and other preventive services without charging a copay, given that the service is provided by an in-network provider. Read more about preventive care benefits at HealthCare.gov.

OK, OK, I'm convinced. I'll get the vaccine … later. Nope, get vaccinated now. "You need to get vaccinated before you're exposed to influenza for the vaccine to work," said Anne Schuchat, assistant surgeon general and director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. "So that first cough or fever is not the time to think about influenza vaccination. Today is the time to start thinking about it."

Or, as Koh succinctly summed up: "Don't hesitate; vaccinate."

Before You Go

Hand Washing
There may be no more promoted solution to avoiding the flu this year (besides the flu shot, of course) than diligent hand washing. As many as 80 percent of infections are transmitted via contact like sneezing, coughing or touching surfaces that have been sneezed or coughed on, says Tierno, and then touching "your mouth, eyes or nose, which are the conduits of viruses into the body." He recommends scrubbing before eating, drinking or touching your face, and disinfecting shared surfaces in the home (like the bathroom) and the office, like phones, computers and fridge door handles.
While you're off in dreamland, your body gets to work repairing cells and injuries you may have incurred during the normal day's wear and tear, says Tierno. Getting your seven to nine hours a night means your body can repair and heal itself and ward off infections. "If you don't get the appropriate sleep, that system is not operating and you're on a steady decline over time," he says. In fact, skimping on sleep is as disruptive to the immune system as stress, according to a 2012 study. And earlier research suggested that sleep patterns may play a role in a gene that helps fight off bacteria and viruses.
Getting your blood pumping regularly can increase the activity of a type of white blood cells that attacks viruses. Shoot for an hour a day, says Tierno -- but not necessarily all at once. "Even if it's walking around the office, up stairs, down stairs, to and from work -- it doesn't have to be continuous," he says.
Getting the proper amount of the right nutrients and minerals as part of a healthy diet "leaves the body in optimal condition to fight the battle," says Tierno. This means cutting back on sugary, fatty foods and upping your intake of vegetables, fruit and lean protein, he says. One of those nutrients that gets a particularly healthy reputation during cold and flu season is zinc, and for good reason. "Zinc interferes with viruses gaining full access to our cells," he says. "Zinc may block certain metabolic activity." While it's not the end-all cure, foods rich in zinc, like oysters and wheat germ, may offer some protection.
The anti-microbial properties of this pungent bulb (and its relative, the onion) can fight off certain bacteria and viruses, says Tierno, as can the compounds in other herbs and spices, like thyme. It's likely due to the compound allicin, which seems to block infections. Try it in your next bowl of soothing chicken soup!
Thankfully, most of us are inhabiting cozy-warm homes this winter, but those cranking radiators come with a downside. Indoor winter air is much dryer than our bodies would like. Without sufficient moisture, says Tierno, "immune system cells can't optimally work," so it's important to stay hydrated. (A humidifier can also help.)
Skipping Happy Hour
Alcohol suppresses both the part of the immune system that protects you from coming down with something and the part that fights off the germs already in your system, so knocking a few too many back can put you at increased risk for catching the bug going around -- and having trouble kicking it.
A positive attitude can take you far -- even, maybe, to age 100. But along the way, a life of laughter and optimism could also help you sniffle through fewer bouts of the flu or colds. While there's much that's still not well understood about the process, it seems that certain immune cells are produced by a big belly laugh, says Tierno.
A favorite solution for de-stressing, massage can also help you stay physically healthy. While there's been little research into exactly how it works, massage certainly increases circulation, which may help promote the general "state of wellness in the body," says Tierno. "Nutrients are passed around better, the blood flow is better," he says. "It's a very useful thing to get a massage."
A 1999 study found that getting frisky a couple of times a week can boost immunoglobin A, an antibody that fights off colds. Just make sure your partner isn't already sick!

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