It’s time to take steps to protect yourself and your loved ones from the upcoming flu season. Will it be as bad as last year’s dangerous influenza strain H3N2? It’s tough to predict the flu’s severity, but this much is known—it will kill some people, and it will make many more sick. So it’s time to get vaccinated—even if you later get the flu, it will likely be less severe.
WHO BENEFITS MOST…AND WHEN
This year’s flu vaccine guidelines from the CDC urge vaccination for those six months and older before influenza activity gets started. The ideal time is now. If you get it out of the way, there’s no chance of forgetting it and then getting sick during peak flu season, which is typically in February in the US. Children ages six months through eight years old who are getting the flu shot for the first time should get vaccinated by the end of October at the latest because they actually need two doses spaced at least four weeks apart.
Getting the vaccine earlier rather than later in the fall is especially important if you’re age 65 or older or have a chronic condition that affects your immune system, such as diabetes or heart disease—last year’s flu season made it very clear that many adults ages 50 to 65 with underlying health issues will have more severe influenza than people who aren’t managing such conditions.
Pregnant women should have the vaccine sooner, too, because they have rates of complication comparable to those ages 65 and older. Bonus: An expectant mom’s flu vaccination also protects the baby for the first six months of life, when babies are too young to be vaccinated.
BETTER TARGETING OF VIRUSES
If the thought of needles has scared you off in the past, know that the nasal spray vaccine FluMist is available again and licensed for nonpregnant, healthy individuals ages two through 49. It was taken off the market because it wasn’t effective enough, and though it has been reintroduced, there are cautions, especially for little ones. The American Academy of Pediatrics still recommends the flu shot for kids this fall. This is because the inactivated influenza vaccine used in shots has an overall better track record. The nasal spray, which is an attenuated influenza vaccine, was not effective against H1N1 strains of the flu virus and proved less effective than was hoped for against the H3N2 virus. A shot is likely to be more effective than the spray in adults as well, but for those who shy away from needles, the spray is better than no protection.
Flu vaccines are updated in an attempt to keep up with changing viruses as well as to meet the needs of special populations. There are two vaccines specifically licensed for use in people ages 65 and older: The high-dose vaccine (Fluzone High-Dose), which contains four times the amount of antigen (the substance that prompts our bodies to develop antibodies) as regular flu shots…and the adjuvanted flu vaccine (Fluad) made with an additive that creates a stronger immune response following vaccination. Both are “trivalent,” meaning that they protect against three strains of flu. If you’re under age 65, talk to your doctor about the “quadrivalent” vaccine. This protects against a fourth strain of flu virus and is likely the right choice for you if you’re generally healthy.
If you have an egg allergy, the CDC states you can receive any licensed, recommended age-appropriate influenza vaccine, including the nasal spray. Research has shown that a conventional egg allergy does not lead to reactions from the flu vaccine. (Flu vaccines are cultured on fluid from chicken embryos.) However, if your allergy is so extreme that eggs lead to anaphylaxis or severe respiratory distress, talk to your allergist about getting the egg-free recombinant influenza vaccine.
Important: This is also the season to ask about the pneumonia vaccine, which can be given at the same time (in the other arm). Consider it if you’re over age 65 or if you have diabetes, heart disease, a chronic lung disease such as COPD or asthma or a compromised immune system or if you drink heavily or smoke no matter what your age.
Bottom line: Though no flu vaccine is perfect, being vaccinated lessens the duration and complications of influenza, making it less likely that you or someone you love will end up in the hospital. Plus, you’ll be less likely to transmit the virus to someone in your family or community.
Read more on preventing and managing the flu…