As of Dec. 28, there were 19 confirmed influenza-related deaths reported in Washington state by the Department of Health, including two children. The number of flu cases continues to rise as we head into the middle of winter.
Although I recommend getting vaccinated against the flu in October or November, it is not too late to get protection against influenza by getting a flu shot now. You might be wondering why a flu shot is necessary every year when vaccines against other diseases are effective for many years after vaccination.
There are a few reasons:
1. There are many different viruses that cause influenza.
2. Which viruses are most likely to be circulating each winter changes.
3. All of these different viruses are changing all the time.
You might also be wondering why the flu vaccine is more effective some years than others. Before the flu vaccine is made, doctors and scientists gather all the information they can find about which influenza viruses are circulating around the world, and they use that information to predict the future the best they can.
Most years we get an effective influenza vaccine, which saves lives. Fewer people die from the flu than in the past because modern medicine has far more tools to keep you alive, but the best way to keep people from dying is to keep people from getting sick in the first place.
There are a lot of options when it comes to the influenza vaccine (six, in fact), including one that does not involve a shot, one that does not involve eggs to make it and one that does not use flu viruses to make it.
• Standard dose flu shots.
• High-dose shots for people ages 65 and older.
• Shots made with adjuvant for people ages 65 years and older.
• Shots made with virus grown in cell culture. No eggs are involved in the production of this vaccine.
• Shots made using a vaccine production technology (recombinant vaccine) that does not require the use of the flu virus.
• Live attenuated influenza vaccine given by nasal spray.
Talk to your primary health care provider about which flu shot is best for you, and check with your insurance to make sure the shot you choose is covered.
It takes about two weeks after your flu shot for your immune system to build itself up against the flu, so if you get the flu (or even a cold) within those two weeks, it’s because you came into contact with an illness-causing virus right around the time you got your shot. The influenza vaccine cannot cause the flu.
Getting vaccinated not only protects you from the flu, but it also protects people who for one reason or another cannot get a flu vaccine because of things like age, another illness or finances.
If you do get the flu, antiviral medication can lessen your symptoms and make their duration a day or two shorter. More importantly, antivirals given to people at high risk of serious complications from the flu might shorten a hospital stay or save a life.
Antivirals work best when started within two days of flu symptoms. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference between influenza and a cold because a lot of the symptoms overlap. Flu symptoms can include feeling feverish or having a fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue, and they come on very quickly.
If you have questions about where you can get a flu shot, please visit knockoutflu.org and access the Flu Vaccine Finder for a full list of providers – one is close to you.
Bob Riggs is a family medicine physician at Kaiser Permanente’s Riverfront Medical Center.
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