It’s flu season again, and early reports from the southern hemisphere hint that it may be a doozy when it hits. As in past years, we expect that the flu will affect millions of people and send hundreds of thousands of them to their local hospitals. The influenza virus (the flu) is especially harmful to children, people with chronic illnesses, older adults and pregnant women.
While the flu vaccine is never perfectly matched to the strain that arrives, it does save lives. It is the single most important thing that you can do to prevent getting the flu – or to make it less severe if you do contract it. A common myth about the flu shot is that you can get the flu from the vaccine. That’s not true. The vaccine is made by either using an inactivated (killed) virus or using a single gene from the virus (not the whole virus) to create an immune response (antibodies) against the virus without giving you an infection.
It takes about two weeks for your immune system to make antibodies against the flu virus, and it’s the antibodies that protect you from getting the flu. The earlier you get your shot, the better.
Some people have a reaction to the flu shot, but the reactions are usually quite mild. The most common side effects are localized reactions such as soreness, swelling or redness where the shot was given or a generalized reaction such as fatigue, low grade fever or headache. These symptoms last no more than one to two days after getting the vaccine.
It’s also important to keep in mind that you can still experience flu symptoms, even after getting the vaccine. You could have been infected with a strain of the virus that was not included in the vaccine, as there are many different flu viruses that can cause illness. You may have been infected with a totally different virus, such as rhinovirus, adenovirus or coronavirus, that could cause similar flu-like symptoms. Another possibility is that you could have been exposed to influenza virus either before getting vaccinated or in the two weeks following the vaccination, in which case your body would not have had enough time to develop immune protection.
Don’t let the above reasons prevent you from getting the vaccine this year. If you do experience flu symptoms after getting the vaccine, it’s highly likely that you won’t feel as bad for as long.
Besides getting the flu shot, there are everyday measures that you can follow during flu season. Make sure you wash your hands regularly with soap and water or an alcohol-based solution. Avoid contact with sick people, and if you are sick, limit contact with others as much as possible. If you do get the flu, you should stay home for 24 hours after your fever is gone. You may return to work after being fever-free for 24 hours (without using a fever-reducing medicine).
Talk to your healthcare provider if you need help or have questions about the flu vaccine.
Sneha Patel, DO is a provider at PeaceHealth Medical Group Family Medicine in Bellingham.