For many of us, seasonal “jabs” were mostly an experience we had as kids. Parents gave gentle warnings on the way to the doctor’s office, and it wasn’t until you were propped up on the chair with that crunchy, crackling paper that you saw the needle and realized it was about to go into your arm. To quiet your fear, you were given a cool band-aid and maybe even promised an ice cream if you could just be brave.
Fast-forward to today, and vaccines have suddenly become a part of our daily vocabulary. As the international scientific community came together at record speed to focus on immunization, Covid-19 vaccines are in the news and on our minds daily.
But, before there was Covid-19, there was influenza. Even though it might not be capturing headlines the way it used to, forgetting about it would be a mistake - and a potentially serious one. The flu seasons in 2017 and 2018 broke records for deaths and hospitalizations, making them two of the worst flu seasons in modern history.
So, let’s unpack the basics of this virus and cover the 3 reasons you should get the flu shot right now (if you haven’t already!)
Reason #1: Because the flu has historically proven to have serious implications
Facts about influenza
- The flu kills an average of 12,000 Americans in a mild flu season, and up to 56,000 in severe years, according to CDC estimates.
- Annually, between 140,000 and 710,000 hospitalizations have occurred due to complications caused by the flu since 2010
- Only around half of Americans get their annual flu shots
What is influenza?
Influenza is a type of respiratory virus that enters our bodies through the nose, throat, or lungs. It’s been around a long time, dating back at least 1,500 years. The first influenza epidemic hit Florence, Italy in the 1300s, and another was recorded in 1580 that spread from Asia, through Europe, and into Africa. The most well-known influenza spread was the 1918 pandemic, which infected up to ⅓ of the world’s population and killed over 50 million people.
With so much history behind it, this is a virus that’s had plenty of time to evolve. In fact, what we refer to as the flu virus is actually 4 different types of viruses.
- Type A: includes avian flu and swine flu
- Type B: only found in humans and harbor seals, higher mortality risk
- Type C: affects children and pigs, generally mild
- Type D: only known to affect cows and pigs
Reason #2: Get the flu shot to protect yourself and others from potentially serious flu-related complications
Effects of the Flu Virus
Side effects vary widely. It can look like a few days of feeling under the weather, staying in bed, and missing work, or it can result in a more serious illness with a laundry list of complications. These can include bacterial pneumonia, ear infection, sinus infection, or the worsening of chronic medical conditions like congestive heart failure, asthma, and diabetes. The rates of heart attack and stroke increase after infection, as well, so it’s a virus that can have long-term effects long after the illness.
How does the flu shot work?
Usually, it’s administered with a needle into your muscle tissue. Both inactivated viruses and live virus vaccinations can be used to produce an immune response. There are several different types of flu vaccines you can choose from, so consult with your doctor on which is best for you. They all demonstrate similar efficacy, so unless you have health conditions to consider, any version will help keep you protected.
Each year, we are usually fighting a different strain of the flu, so yearly research determines which strains are most likely to spread, and those become the focus of the vaccines. Flu vaccines in the United States are considered “quadrivalent” vaccines, so they protect against variants from four different flu viruses including influenza A (H1N1), influenza A (H3N2), and two different influenza B viruses.
One thing to note for anyone who has experienced allergic reactions to eggs, there are two ovalbumin-free flu vaccine options available, which you can learn about by visiting the CDC website.
Are there side effects to the flu vaccine?
After being vaccinated, you might develop flu-like symptoms from the shot, but you won’t actually get the flu. As your immune system responds to the vaccine and generates antibodies, you may experience a few common side effects:
- Soreness, redness, or swelling where the shot was given
- Muscle aches
Does the flu shot work?
CDC studies have demonstrated that the flu vaccine reduces the risk of illness by between 40% and 60%. Because the viruses change and the vaccines are updated yearly, protection varies from season to season. A lot also depends on the age and health status of the recipient. How well the vaccines match the circulating strains also plays a role in efficacy from year to year. However, studies are now demonstrating cross-protection between different virus strains that aren’t included in the vaccine. So no matter which strains are circulating, being vaccinated may still provide protection regardless of the specific strains you come into contact with and whether they’ve been included in your shot.
Do I need the flu shot even if I’ve never had the flu?
Even if you or your child have never had the flu, it’s recommended that everyone 6 months and older should get a flu vaccine every season, with very few exceptions. Anyone with chronic diseases like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or diabetes will have a higher risk of flu-related complications if they happen to catch the virus. High-risk factors should be taken into consideration for anyone with chronic health conditions and adults who are 65 and older.
Reason #3: Get the flu shot because it’s easy to do!
It’s easier than ever to get your flu shot and keep it up to date every flu season. Vaccines and health screenings can be accessed through a variety of channels, whether you’re insured or not.
Where can I get the flu shot?
- Through your primary care physician
- A local pharmacy
- Any urgent care facility
- Consult healthcare professionals through virtual visits or telemedicine
Remember to keep your vaccines up to date
The height of flu season in North America is between October and May, so if you haven’t already, make that appointment to get your shot ASAP, especially if you plan to do any traveling over the holidays. It takes 2 weeks for the shot to work its magic once you’ve been vaccinated, so the earlier, the better. The flu virus can live on surfaces for up to 48 hours, so it’s important to wash your hands regularly. These are very important safety measures whether you’re traveling or expecting people to come to you during the holidays.
It’s important to understand that immune protection from vaccination naturally declines over time. And because there are several different flu viruses, vaccines are constantly changing. Since the most important strains are reviewed by the science and medical community annually, flu vaccines reflect those updates. Stay current to keep yourself, your family, and your loved ones protected against the most communicable influenza viruses every season.