There’s nothing better than spending quality time together as a family, whether it’s going for a walk, eating dinner together or just hanging out at home. What’s NOT fun is when the whole family is sick. One way to prevent that is to be sure kids and adults get the flu vaccine each year.
The flu (influenza) is a respiratory illness that causes fever, chills, cough, sore throat, congestion, body aches and fatigue. In short, it’s miserable. Flu season typically begins in late fall, peaks in January and February, and may last until late spring. The flu virus changes each season, so even though you may have had the flu in the past — and been vaccinated — you can get it again.
Preventing the flu
While proper hygiene such as hand washing is important to prevent the spread of illness, the very best defense against the flu is an annual flu vaccine.
What makes the flu such a serious health risk is that it changes a bit every season, with strains mutating and adapting. Some years the strain is relatively mild and other years it causes severe symptoms and increased mortality. Last season was one of the most severe we’ve seen in a long time. Last year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says thousands of children were hospitalized due to complications from the flu, and 172 even died from it.
The good news is, the flu vaccine is highly effective. A 2014 study showed that the flu vaccine reduced the chances of kids being admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit by 74 percent during previous flu seasons. The earlier you can get it, the better, since the vaccine generally takes about two weeks before it is fully effective.
Why the whole family should get the vaccine
The flu can make anyone feel awful, but it’s especially hard on kids. Everyone in the family (with the exception of infants less than 6 months of age) should get the flu vaccine — kids, parents and grandparents. It’s also important for pregnant women to get the vaccine to protect themselves and their babies.
The flu is highly contagious. When everyone in the family is protected it, the chances of the illness spreading within the household decrease. That means fewer days of missed school, work and play — and more time to spend as a family.
Is the flu vaccine safe?
The flu vaccine has been studied extensively, and it’s safe and recommended for nearly everyone over 6 months of age. Contrary to the popular misconception, the vaccine will not give you the flu. While there may be some side effects, including soreness at the site of injection and mild flu-like symptoms, the vaccine does not cause the flu.
The potential side effects are much less severe than a potential case of the flu. Since the flu varies greatly from year to year, it’s hard to predict when the next severe strain will appear, making it important to protect yourself every year.
Most brands of flu vaccine do not contain mercury. When mercury is present, it’s in the form of thimerisol, a preservative. Extensive research has proven thimerisol does not cause developmental conditions like autism.
There are also some brands of flu shot that are “egg” free for those with allergies. But only people with a severe, life-threatening egg allergy need that special vaccine.
What about FluMist?
For the last two years, the FluMist has not been available. While it will be an option for this flu season, we believe the flu shot is the best way to get the vaccine. The FluMist will be available at our Primary Care clinics but it’s important to know that some children should not get the FluMist because of age, certain health conditions, or other reasons. Your health care provider can help you decide.
What if you get the flu?
If you or your child do get the flu, make sure to take any antiviral drugs prescribed by your doctor as instructed. This can sometimes make the difference between a milder illness versus a more serious one. It’s also important to rest and drink plenty of fluids.
Perhaps most importantly, do not try to tough it out and go to work or send your child to school if they are sick. Staying home will keep the virus from spreading.
Talk with your doctor
I often have parents tell me, “We don’t get the flu shot because we never get the flu.” Just because you may never have had a serious case of the flu is not a good reason to not get a flu shot. Think of it like home insurance. Just because you’ve never had a fire doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get insurance. As stated previously, the flu can vary greatly in its severity from year to year and it’s hard to predict when the next pandemic of a particularly severe strain will appear.
The Affordable Care Act requires that flu and other vaccines be covered by health insurance without a copayment or coinsurance, but be sure to check with your insurance company to find out if you have to get the flu shot from a specific doctor or location. If you have questions about the flu vaccine, talk to your doctor.
Take the time now to get your family’s flu vaccines, and look forward to healthy family time together this fall and winter.
Learn more about David Meuler, MD.