A Shot in the Arm Beats Days in Bed

Influenza (the flu) is a contagious respiratory illness caused by viruses that infect the nose, throat, and lungs. It can cause mild to severe symptoms, and can lead to hospitalization and death. Every year in the United States, millions of people are sickened, hundreds of thousands are hospitalized and thousands die from the flu.

Anyone, no matter how healthy you are, can get the flu, and serious problems related to the flu can happen at any age. Unfortunately, some people are at a higher risk of developing serious flu-related complications if they get sick. This includes people 65 years and older, people of any age with certain chronic medical conditions (such as diabetes, asthma, or heart disease), pregnant women, and young children.

The best way to prevent the flu is by getting a flu vaccine each year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone six months of age and older get a flu vaccine annually. Flu vaccination can reduce flu illnesses, doctors’ visits, and missed work and school, as well as prevent flu-related hospitalizations.

The body’s immune response from vaccination declines over time, so an annual vaccine is needed for optimal protection. Also, flu viruses are constantly changing, so the formulation of the flu vaccine is reviewed each year and sometimes updated to keep up with changing flu viruses. For the best protection, everyone six months and older should get vaccinated annually.

“Flu season” in the United States can begin as early as October and last as late as May. When more people get vaccinated against the flu, less flu can spread through their community.

How vaccines work

Flu vaccines cause antibodies to develop in the body about two weeks after vaccination. These antibodies provide protection against infection with the viruses that are in the vaccine. The seasonal flu vaccine protects against the influenza viruses that research indicates will be most common during the upcoming season. Traditional flu vaccines (called “trivalent” vaccines) are made to protect against three flu viruses; an influenza A (H1N1) virus; an influenza A (H3N2) virus; and an influenza B virus. There also are flu vaccines made to protect against four flu viruses (called “quadrivalent” vaccines). These vaccines protect against the same viruses as the trivalent vaccine and an additional B virus.

The CDC recommends use of injectable influenza vaccines (including inactivated influenza vaccines and recombinant influenza vaccines).  A nasal mist is typically available, as well, but last year, the CDC advised against using it and favored immunizations. One exception of note is that standard-dose trivalent shots are manufactured using virus grown in eggs. If you are allergic to eggs, there exists an alternative made using a different base grown in cell culture.

Flu vaccination has been associated with lower rates of some cardiac (heart) events among people with heart disease, especially among those who experienced a cardiac event in the past year. Flu vaccination also has been associated with reduced hospitalizations among people with diabetes (79%) and chronic lung disease (52%). And flu vaccination helps protect women during and after pregnancy. Getting vaccinated against the flu can also protect a baby from flu after birth. (A mother can pass antibodies onto the developing baby during pregnancy.) Flu vaccination also may make your flu illness milder if you do get sick.

Contrary to myth, a flu vaccine cannot cause flu illness. Flu vaccines that are administered with a needle are currently made in two ways: the vaccine is made either with flu vaccine viruses that have been ‘inactivated’ and are therefore not infectious, or with no flu vaccine viruses at all (which is the case for recombinant influenza vaccine). The nasal spray flu vaccine does contain live viruses. However, the viruses are attenuated (weakened), and therefore cannot cause flu illness.

Side effects from a flu vaccination are mild and short-lasting, especially when compared to symptoms of the flu. Side effects may include soreness, redness or swelling where the shot was given, a low-grade fever, or aches, but it’s all short term.

Get vaccinated now

You should get a flu vaccine before flu begins spreading in your community, so make plans to get vaccinated early in fall. CDC recommends that people get a flu vaccine by the end of October, if possible. Getting vaccinated later, however, can still be beneficial and vaccination is offered throughout the flu season, even into January or later. Children who need two doses of vaccine to be protected should start the vaccination process sooner, because the two doses must be given at least four weeks apart.

There are many options for obtaining your vaccination, ranging from your regular physician to walk-in clinics, college health centers and even local drug stores and supermarket pharmacies.  Many larger employers will sponsor flu clinics so people don’t have to leave work to obtain their shot.  If you have questions about which vaccine is best for you, talk to your doctor or other health care professional.

Preventing pneumonia and shingles

Another important consideration as we head into the autumn months is to get vaccinated against pneumococcal infections. Pneumococcal disease is common in young children, but older adults are at greatest risk of serious pneumococcal infections and even death. The CDC recommends vaccination with the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine for all babies and children younger than two years old, all adults 65 years or older, and people two years through 64 years old who are at increased risk for pneumococcal disease due to certain medical conditions.

Shingles is the reactivation of a viral infection in the nerves to the skin that causes pain, burning, or a tingling sensation, along with an itch and blisters in the skin supplied by the affected nerve.  It is caused by the varicella zoster virus, or VZV — the same virus that causes chickenpox.  When the itchy red spots of childhood chickenpox disappear, the virus remains in a dormant state in our nerve cells, able to strike again. This second eruption of the chickenpox virus is called shingles or herpes-zoster.  Shingles is not caused by the same virus that causes genital herpes, a sexually transmitted disease.

Shingles occurs when an unknown trigger causes the virus to become activated.  It afflicts approximately one million Americans annually, and children are vulnerable, too. However, about half of all cases occur in men and women 60 years old or older. People who develop shingles typically have only one episode in their lifetime, though it can strike a person a second or even third time. Since most of us had chickenpox as children, we’re at risk, even if the case was so mild that it may have passed unnoticed.

In the original exposure to VZV (chickenpox), some of the virus particles settle into nerve cells where they remain for many years in an inactive, hidden form. When the VZV reactivates, it spreads down the long nerve fibers that extend from the sensory cell bodies to the skin. As the virus multiplies, a telltale rash erupts. With shingles, the nervous system is more deeply involved than it was during the bout with chickenpox, and the symptoms are often more complex and severe.

Several antiviral medicines are available to treat shingles. These medicines will help shorten the length and severity of the illness. But to be effective, they must be started as soon as possible after the rash appears. But the only way to reduce the risk of developing shingles and the long-term pain from post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN) – a condition that can afflict people after they’ve recovered from shingles – is to get vaccinated. Shingles vaccine (Zostavax®) reduces the risk of developing shingles and the long-term pain that can sometimes afflict those who have had shingles. The CDC recommends that people aged 60 years and older get one dose of shingles vaccine.


 

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