Friday, December 19, 2014  
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Everything You Need to Know About Flu Shots

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You hear about it every year, whether you have health insurance or not: It’s flu season, get your shot today. There are some people who swear that flu shots are the one thing that keeps them from getting sick every year. Then there are others who never bother to get the shot and don’t catch the flu. What is this miracle shot (or unnecessary waste of money) do you need one, and how exactly does it work? Read on to find out.

What Exactly Is the Flu Shot?

Okay, so you know what a shot is: a doctor comes at you with a big scary needle and sticks it into your arm while you wince and try to pretend like it doesn’t hurt. But what is inside the flu vaccine? A flu shot is an inactivated vaccine (containing some killed virus). The shot contains three influenza viruses: one A (H3N2) virus, one A (H1N1) virus, and one B virus and those are representative of the flue vaccine strains recommended for that year. Interestingly enough, viruses for the flu shot are grown in hen’s eggs, just like a little baby chick.

Do I Need a Flu Shot?

Officially, anyone who wants protection against the flu should get a flu shot. There are certain groups and types of people who are higher risk for catching the flu, and doctors and experts highly recommend that the following people get a flu vaccination:

  • Children ages 6 months through 19 years old
  • Pregnant women
  • People who are 50 years or older
  • People with chronic medical conditions
  • People who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities
  • People who live with, or care for, those at high risk for complications from flu, including health care workers, people in contact with those at risk of catching the flu, and people with children under the age of six months.

There are some people who should definitely avoid getting a flu shot. If you have ever had a severe allergic reaction to a flu shot, please don’t get one. If you have a history of Guillian-Barre syndrome (a disease in which the body damages its own nerve cells, outside of the brain and spinal cord, resulting in muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis), please don’t get a flu shot. If you haven’t had either of these problems but you’re battling a cold or other illness with a fever at the time you are scheduled to get your flu shot, talk to your doctor about rescheduling. However, if all you’ve got is a nasty chest cold and no fever, the shot is safe to get.

Will My Health Insurance Plan Cover a Flu Shot?

Most major health insurance carriers provide flu shots to their policy-holders, but not always. It’s a good idea to check with your health insurance company before getting your vaccination. Even if your health insurance provider doesn’t provide a flu shot, the vaccination itself is relatively inexpensive and sometimes available free from your employer or through local health centers.

Is the Flu Shot Worth the Trouble?

If you’re anything like my father (who normally is tough as nails) and are terrified of needles, trying to decide whether or not to get any kind of shot is a really big deal. So how effective is the flu shot? According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), when the “match” between vaccine and circulating strains is close, the vaccine prevents influenza in about 70%-90% of healthy persons younger than age 65 years. However, this all depends on how well the researchers and scientists have done their homework, because if the vaccine and circulating strain don’t match up, you just got poked for nothing.

For people living in nursing homes or those with chronic medical conditions, the flu shot is between 30-70% effective in preventing hospitalization for pneumonia and influenza. Read that last part carefully, however, because the effective rate only corresponds to hospitalization, not to flu prevention alone. In elderly nursing home patients, the flu shot is 80% effective in preventing death from the flu.

Side Effects, Risks and Possible Complications

Contrary to myths swirling about, you cannot actually get the flu from getting a flu shot. Some minor side effects from the flue shot could include soreness, redness or swelling around the area where the shot was given, a low-grade fever or an achy body. If you find yourself experiencing any of these things, give yourself a couple of days to feel better, and you probably will. Serious and life-threatening side effects are rare, but possible. Within a few minute to a couple of hours after getting a flu shot, if you are experiencing any of the following, get to a hospital stat: breathing problems, hoarseness or wheezing, hives, paleness, weakness, a fast heartbeat, or dizziness.

People with allergies to eggs are more prone to reactions like this, because of the fact that the vaccine is grown in hen eggs. As noted above, people who have or have had Guillian-Barre syndrome are at a high risk for serious complications.

To Vaccinate or Not to Vaccinate?

The choice is yours. If you feel you’re at higher risk to catch the flu, getting vaccinated is probably a sensible idea. If you are young, healthy and rarely come into contact with someone who themselves might be at risk for catching the flu, then maybe you don’t need to spare the time and pain. However, if you’ve gotten the shot in the past, had no adverse reactions, and getting one is affordable and easy, why not go ahead and grin and bear it? One moment (and maybe a few days) of discomfort is much better than a week of all of the goodies that come along with the flu. Contact your health care provider or local care clinic to see when flu shots are being offered in your area.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Andres Rueda

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