Don’t mess around with the flu

December 26, 2017

If there is one thing we know about flu season, it's that it's always unpredictable. But when it comes to prevention, education is key. It is around this time of the year that misinformation and common myths about the flu typically start to arise.

The Delaware Division of Public Health reported over 4,500 influenza cases in the 2016-17 flu season, and this year's number of cases is expected to rise.

We all know the telltale symptoms of the flu – the fever, headache, nausea and fatigue. But that is just the beginning.

Some of the more powerful influenza strains can wreak havoc on those with chronic medical conditions, complicating illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes or asthma. The flu can be especially serious for children, the elderly and those with weak immune systems. The flu can stop anyone in their tracks.

Getting the flu is clearly more than an inconvenience. Why, then, isn't everyone getting that annual flu shot?

According to a recent survey by CityMD, over half of millenials did not plan to get a vaccine during last year's flu season. From a Centers for Disease Control report, only 45.6 percent of the overall population got their flu shots during the 2015-16 season. This leaves much room for improvement in vaccination rates.

Although the last couple of flu seasons have been relatively mild, some of the misinformation related to the flu has contributed to consumer behavior and the low rate of use. I'll take this opportunity to debunk some of the most common misconceptions about the flu vaccine.

Myth: You can get sick from the flu shot.

Fact: The flu vaccine isn't manufactured with a live virus, so it cannot cause the flu. Sometimes patients may be exposed to the flu or other virus before receiving the vaccine, which can take up to two weeks to become fully effective. When someone gets sick, they mistakenly believe the vaccine was the cause. The most common side effects from the influenza vaccine are soreness, redness, or swelling at the site of the injection and, in some cases, a low-grade fever, headache or muscle ache.

Myth: Flu shots aren't always effective.

Fact: Simply put, a flu shot is the best protection you can get. The influenza vaccine stimulates the body's immune system to make antibodies, which can then recognize and attack that specific strain of virus inside the body. Receiving the vaccine greatly reduces your chances of contracting the virus and, if contracted, may make your symptoms milder. Most flu vaccines protect against strains that are only respiratory in nature. It is important to note that it cannot protect you from gastrointestinal strains. So if you get the "stomach bug," that doesn't necessarily mean your vaccine was ineffective. It is especially important to get the shot and protect people around you who have a greater risk of experiencing serious flu-related complications. It is important for those with weaker immune systems, pregnant women, patients with chronic conditions and young children to all receive the vaccination and protect themselves from powerful influenza strains.

Myth: There's no point in getting a flu shot if it's later in the flu season.

Fact: Getting the flu shot, even later in the season, can still be beneficial. There is usually a delay in the onset of the virus in different parts of the country. While some areas of the country are already experiencing elevated flu activity, activity in Delmarva is still moderate, so there is still time to get vaccinated. In many cases, new virus strains can emerge throughout the season, so it is important to get vaccinated annually. Across the country and here, in Delmarva, the flu most often peaks in January and February, making this is the perfect time to get vaccinated.

Myth: Everyone receives the same type of flu shot.

Fact: Each year, the seasonal influenza vaccine includes the strains that researchers found will be most prevalent throughout the season. This year, there is again an option for a trivalent (3-strain) vaccine, which protects from the three most common flu strains, or the quadrivalent (4-strain) vaccine, which includes one additional strain. There are also immune-boosting influenza vaccines for those aged 65 and above, and preservative-free versions for pregnant women or those who are allergic to mercury.

Myth: Flu shots are only for really sick people.

Fact: Influenza certainly does not discriminate. Anyone can catch the flu. Anyone can have serious flu-related complications and symptoms. Individuals with weak immune systems and healthy individuals are equally likely to catch the flu virus. Some people never show any signs of flu symptoms but may act as carriers of the virus, infecting their loved ones. In short, prevention is always better than cure; the best defense against the flu is to get an annual flu shot.

The good news is that it is not too late to get the vaccination. If last year's flu activity is any indication, flu levels won't peak until after the new year. Since the vaccination can take up to two weeks to build up full immunity, now is prime time for prevention with the holidays in full swing.

Armed with this knowledge, I encourage you to get vaccinated and to talk about the benefits of vaccinations with your friends and loved ones. The flu is a dangerous virus. Let's each do our part to take control of it, one vaccine at a time.

Keili Marvel is a pharmacist at Walgreens, Lewes.