By Liliana Losada Brown, PhD, Associate Director, Scientific Programs at SWHR
Think back to the last time you got a shot. Did the doctor cover the wound with a cartoon character-printed bandage and treat you to a lollipop? If so, you are way overdue for a flu shot -- but that's OK, we all are! Adults, children, pregnant women -- everyone! --older than six months should get a flu shot every year.
We all know the flu: the serious, contagious respiratory illness caused by the influenza virus that infects nearly 20 percent of Americans every year. Do you want to be among those that don't get the flu? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that every person over the age of six months, especially pregnant and breastfeeding women, get the influenza vaccine ("flu shot") every year.
Why so often? Flu viruses change rapidly; meaning new strains of the virus emerge every year (1). The yearly flu shot will only protect you against three or four strains, which is why you need new shots every flu season.
So, how do we know the new shot will protect against the year's new strains? Every year, a panel of experts uses surveillance information to predict the dominant strains in the upcoming flu season. This process has been very successful, with the flu shot matching the dominant strain almost every season since 1995 (2, 3). It is possible for predictions to be imprecise, like last year's shot (4); however, even in years when the shot is not a perfect match, it still offers some protection (5).
Thanks to advances in flu vaccine technology, most people have at least one option for protection. For those afraid of needles, nasal spray or intradermal vaccinations are available. Vegans or those with egg or casein allergies can opt for the recently debuted egg-less shot (6). For adults over age 65, a high-dose version of the shot can result in better protection.
With so many easily accessible options available, researchers wonder what's keeping adults from getting their flu shot. Some people don't think the shots are effective, and some, in fact, believe that you can catch the flu from the shot itself (7). Fear not - neither of those qualms is true (5). Not only are you 60 percent less likely to need treatment for the flu, but the shot also gives you the benefit of less severe illness, less time missed from work, fewer hospitalizations, and a lower chance that you'll need antibiotics to combat bacterial infections associated with the flu (5).
Some adults don't think they'll get the flu or are under the assumption that they're already immune (7), but the truth is anyone can get it. A few groups - including young children, seniors, people with disabilities, and pregnant women - are at higher risk. An important note here: the flu shot is the safest and most effective way to protect pregnant women and their babies from the flu. Even after giving birth, a breastfeeding mother who has received the shot will continue to offer protection to her baby, who cannot get the shot until after they are six months old.
Still think you don't need to get a flu shot? Talk to your healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the shot.
So, aside from the obvious (go get your flu shot!), what can you do? Take action:
• Wash your hands with soap frequently and use hand sanitizer when needed
• If you do get the flu, stay home so you don't pass it on to others
• Encourage your friends, family, and coworkers to go get their shot, too
• Ask your employer about incentive programs to help ease access to vaccination, like flu shot clinics at work
• If you are an employer, consider setting up programs like this for your employees to get their flu shots
• Know that if you have elderly, sick, or pregnant family members, or babies younger than six months old, getting yourself the shot can better help you protect them, as these populations are at the greatest risk for the flu
Above all, know the facts and protect yourself by getting your flu shot this year. That way, we can all have a safe and healthy flu season!
The Society for Women's Health Research (SWHR ®) is committed to transforming women's health through research, public education, and policy that promotes the inclusion of women and minorities in medical research. To learn more about SWHR and for further flu resources, visit swhr.org. Follow us on Twitter at @SWHR.
2. Baguelin M, Flasche S, Camacho A, Demiris N, Miller E, et al. (2013) Assessing Optimal Target Populations for Influenza Vaccination Programmes: An Evidence Synthesis and Modelling Study. PLoS Med 10(10): e1001527. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1001527
3. Skwarecki, B. 2014. The flu shot isn't a good match this year. Is it ever? PLoSBlogs. http://blogs.plos.org/publichealth/2014/12/12/flu-shot-isnt-good-match-year-ever/
7. Sullivan, P., (Nov. 2, 2009) "Influenza Vaccination in Healthcare Workers: Should it be Mandatory?" OJIN: The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing Vol. 15 No. 1