SPRINGFIELD – When it comes to this year's flu season, which of the following is true?
"I don't need a flu shot this year, I had one last year."
"Since there really hasn't been a big swine flu epidemic lately, I don't need to get vaccinated for it anymore."
"Every time I get a flu shot, I feel sick afterwards, almost like I have the flu."
The answer is that they are all false.
"Protection lasts for about a year, so you need to be vaccinated every year to raise your immune levels against the flu strains that are circulating in a given year," Dr. Sarah Haessler from the Infectious Disease Division at Baystate Medical Center, said.
According to Haessler, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced in August that it had approved the 2012-2013 influenza (flu) vaccine formulation. Each year experts from the FDA, World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and other public health experts study influenza virus samples and global disease patterns to identify virus strains likely to cause the most illness during the upcoming flu season. As a result, the strains selected for inclusion in the 2012-2013 flu vaccine are: A/California/7/2009 (H1N1)-like virus, A/Victoria/361/2011 (H3N2)-like virus, and B/Wisconsin/1/2010-like virus.
While the H1N1 (swine flu) virus is the same as last year, this year's influenza H3N2 and B viruses differ from those in last year's influenza vaccines.
"Once again this year, swine flu protection is included in your regular influenza vaccine, so only one shot is required," Haessler said.
Seasonal flu vaccine is highly recommended if you want to avoid the flu, and it is especially important for people who are at risk for complications – young children, pregnant women, people 50 years or older, people with diabetes, and heart, lung and kidney disease, and those who live in nursing homes.
Similar to last year, the CDC is recommending that everyone be vaccinated – including those six months and older, unless you are allergic to eggs or your doctor recommends against it because of certain pre-existing conditions. Also, the CDC says that babies and children ages six months to eight years old will require two shots if it is their first time getting a flu vaccine. However, only one shot is needed if they were vaccinated last year. The Baystate Health infectious disease specialist dispelled the fallacy that you can get sick from the flu shot.
"The flu shot is made from inactivated (dead) virus that cannot give you the flu. There are a lot of colds and viruses around at this time of year, and some people may catch them shortly afterwards and erroneously attribute their illness to the vaccine. And, the flu shot is safe," Haessler said.
"Some may experience soreness, redness or swelling where the shot was given, as well as fever, headache, itching and fatigue. But, most people have no adverse reactions to the flu shot, and life-threatening allergic reactions from vaccines are quite rare," she added.
The Baystate infectious disease specialist, noted, however, that you should call your doctor or visit the Emergency Department for any unusual conditions following the flu shot such as a high fever, behavioral changes, or signs of a severe allergic reaction, such as difficulty breathing, rapid heartbeat or dizziness.
And, the time to be vaccinated is now, Haessler noted.
"The CDC is saying that ample supplies should be available in October. Now is the time to see your primary care physician, or go to a flu clinic offered by a public health department or pharmacy in your area and get your vaccine before the flu arrives," Haessler said.
Although influenza activity usually lasts from October to May in the United States and normally peaks in January or February, Haessler noted that it is difficult to predict when the virus will begin to circulate in our area, and so getting your shot early is the best strategy, since it takes one to two weeks after vaccination for you body to make antibodies against the influenza virus.
While the flu vaccine is still the single best way to prevent the flu, protection is never 100 percent and some people can get the flu even after being vaccinated.
"The efficacy of the flu vaccine varies from year to year depending upon how well matched the influenza viruses in the vaccine are to those actually circulating in the community," Haessler said.
Symptoms of seasonal influenza virus include fever, headache, extreme tiredness, dry cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle aches, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
"What differentiates the flu from the common cold is that these symptoms usually come on very quickly and are much more severe," Haessler said.
Although there is no cure for the flu, just as with the common cold, there are treatments to lessen the symptoms.
"Antiviral drugs can make your flu symptoms milder and help you feel better quicker, but you need to get to your doctor immediately when you suspect you have the flu," Haessler said.
For more information, visit baystatehealth.org/bmc