WALTHAM – Physicians of the Massachusetts Medical Society are adding their voices to those of other health officials in urging everyone to get vaccinated for this flu season.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) has indicated this year's flu season has arrived unusually early and could be severe this year. Health professionals say vaccine supplies remain plentiful and are urging everyone to get vaccinated. There's still time to get vaccinated.
Here, in Q&A format from the Massachusetts Medical Society, is what you should know about the flu.
How serious can the flu be?
Flu is a contagious respiratory illness that causes more than 200,000 hospitalizations annually. It can also be deadly: CDC estimates that from the 1976-1977 season to the 2006-2007 season, flu associated deaths ranged from 3,000 to 49,000 people. Lost work time and added hospital and health care costs add to the impact of this disease. Deaths of children from flu-related complications have already occurred this year.
How is the flu spread?
It's spread from person to person, principally by droplets from coughing, sneezing, or talking. People with the flu can also infect someone else before feeling sick, as the virus can spread one day before symptoms develop, and spread up to a week or more after getting sick.
What are complications from the flu?
Pneumonia is common, as are ear and sinus infections and dehydration. Patients with chronic conditions, such as diabetes, asthma, or congestive heart failure, may see those conditions get worse, posing serious threats to health. And no, you can't get the flu from a flu shot.
Who should get vaccinated and who is most at risk?
Everyone six months and older should get a flu shot every year. Those at highest risk from complications from the flu are pregnant women; children under 5; adults 65 and older; people with asthma, diabetes, heart disease, or weakened immune systems; patients with neurological and neurodevelopmental conditions such as epilepsy, seizure disorders, or muscular dystrophy; people who are morbidly obese; and people in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. They, and the people they come into close contact with, including health care workers, should be vaccinated.
When should I get a flu shot?
The sooner the better. It takes about two weeks after the shot for your body to develop an immune response. Getting vaccinated quickly is best for children 6 months through 8 years who are being protected for the first time, because they need two doses at least four weeks apart.
How is the flu shot given?
The flu vaccine is available in two forms: an injection with a needle and as a nasal spray. There are three options for the flu shot: one that can be given to almost everyone; an intradermal (under the skin as opposed to into the muscle) shot, approved for adults 18 to 64 years of age; and a high-dose shot for those 65 and older. The nasal spray is approved only for use in healthy people 2 to 49 who are not pregnant.
Should anyone not be vaccinated?
Children less than six months of age should not be vaccinated. People with severe allergies to chicken eggs, those who've had a severe reaction to prior flu vaccinations, and people who have had Guillain-Barré syndrome (an immune system disorder) should check with their physician.
What are the best preventive measures?
Vaccination is the best prevention. Good hygiene habits, like washing hands often or using hand sanitizers, are also important. Control the spread of germs by coughing or sneezing into your arm instead of your hands, keep children home if they're sick, don't go to work if you're sick, and don't share items, like glasses or cups that can spread germs and viruses.
Where can I get a shot?
Plenty of vaccine is available and at multiple locations. Check with your physician or local board of health to see when and where flu vaccine and clinics will be available. You can also visit the Flu Vaccine Finder at http://flushot.healthmap.org
Where can I find more information?
The Mass. Department of Public Health ( www.mass.gov/dph/flu
) and the CDC (www.cdc.gov/flu
) have lots of free information on their websites.