It is October, which means that Fall is officially here! It also means that flu season has begun. As we all gear up to head to the pumpkin patch and go trick-or-treating, it is important that we prepare our families for the spread of the influenza virus.
The simplest and most important way to protect against the influenza virus is to get a flu shot. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) both recommend that everyone six months of age and older get vaccinated against the flu virus. The CDC recommends that everyone receive their flu vaccine by the end of October.
The flu, which is also called seasonal influenza, is an infection caused by one of several strains of the flu virus (type A or B). The virus infects the respiratory system and can cause a multitude of symptoms, including fever, chills, cough, body aches, runny nose, headaches, fatigue, and sore throat. Most people who are infected with influenza recover within a few days to two weeks. However, some individuals develop flu-related complications which require hospitalization. In some cases, flu can lead to death. Cases of influenza are reported year-round. However, flu activity tends to increase in October and peak sometime between December and April.
Get the vaccine facts
The best defense against the flu is the flu vaccine. For the 2019-2020 influenza season, the CDC and AAP recommend routine influenza immunization for individuals six months of age or older with any licensed, age-appropriate vaccine that is available, without preference for any specific vaccine.
The flu vaccine is usually given by shot, most often into a muscle in the arm. The injected form of the vaccine is made from pieces of dead flu virus cells. Children ages six months to eight years of age who have never been vaccinated need to receive two separate doses of the vaccine, which should be given at least one month apart. This double dose is to help your child’s immune system boost the desired response. After their first season, your child will only need one dose of the flu vaccine for subsequent flu seasons.
A nasal spray is also an option for healthy individuals ages 2 to 49 years old. It is made of live but weakened flu virus. This is not recommended for all individuals, nor is it safe for pregnant women, children with a history of asthma or wheezing within the past 12 months, or people who have a weakened immune system.
Getting a flu vaccine is especially important for people who are more likely to develop flu-related complications. This includes children younger than five years (and especially those younger than two years), people age 65 or older, pregnant women (or women who have given birth in the past two weeks), those with chronic health conditions, those with a weakened immune system, anyone who lives in a nursing home or care facility, American Indians, Alaska Natives, and people with a body mass index of 40 or greater.
It is important to get re-vaccinated against influenza each year because the flu virus rapidly mutates and changes into new strains. In addition, your immunity wanes with time and annual vaccination provides increased protection. Each year the CDC works with vaccine producers to create a flu vaccine that will fight the anticipated strains of virus for the coming season.
Children younger than six months of age should not be vaccinated. The best way to prevent influenza in infants younger than six months old is for their caregivers and family members to receive the flu vaccine.
A CDC study from 2017 showed that the flu vaccine significantly decreased a child’s risk of dying from the influenza virus. The study reported a 51% percent reduction in the risk of flu-associated death in children with high-risk medical conditions, and a remarkable 65% decrease in the risk of flu-associated death in otherwise healthy children.
If you are concerned about the cost of a flu vaccine, check with your local health department for places near you where free flu shots are given. Many insurers also cover flu vaccines at no cost to their members.
Flu prevention tips
Flu viruses are spread by contact with droplets, which are sneezed or coughed from an infected person. Breathing in those infected droplets is the most common way to get the flu. Touching objects on which droplets have landed also infects many people. You can spread the virus to others before you feel sick yourself. The CDC says you are contagious a day before symptoms start and up to 5 days afterward.
You can protect yourself against the flu by doing simple things like washing your hands before eating and not putting your hands near your face or in your mouth. Washing hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water is ideal. If soap and water are not available, rub your hands with an alcohol-based hand cleaner. Individuals who are infected with the flu should stay home until they are free of fever for at least 24 hours. Infected individuals should cover their mouth and nose when they cough or sneeze. If you or your family member get the flu, you can help prevent the spread by cleaning and disinfecting commonly touched surfaces.
Rooting out rumors
Don't believe the rumor that a flu shot can give you even a mild case of the flu. It is impossible. The flu shot does not contain a form of the flu virus that can give you the flu at all. Remember, it is made from dead flu cells!
When you get the flu vaccine, your body reacts and makes antibodies that give you immunity against the virus. The most common side effects from the flu vaccine are pain/redness/swelling around the injection site, muscle aches, headache, fatigue, and loss of appetite. Though some of these symptoms may mimic the flu, they are usually mild and last less than two days.
Contrary to popular belief, an allergy to eggs is not a contraindication to getting the flu vaccine. Severe allergic reactions to the flu vaccine are very rare, and usually occur within a few minutes to a few hours of receiving the vaccine. Individuals with an egg allergy can safely receive the flu vaccine in a medical setting.
Flu season has arrived and it is important that we all protect ourselves and our loved ones from getting sick. Getting vaccinated against influenza has many proven benefits. The influenza vaccine decreases the number of flu cases, cuts down on missed days of work and school, reduces number of trips to the doctor, and prevents flu-related hospitalizations. Don’t delay, go get that flu shot today! Make an appointment with one of our caring Children's pediatricians.
Dr. Leah A. Douglas joined the Children’s Hospital Pediatric Primary Care team in July of 2019. Dr. Douglas earned her medical degree from the University of South Alabama College of Medicine in Mobile, Alabama. She went on to complete her internship and residency in Pediatrics at LSU Health New Orleans and Children’s Hospital New Orleans. Dr. Douglas has over 7 years’ experience in pediatric emergency medicine and pediatrics. She has lived in New Orleans for the past ten years, and has practiced primary care for the past five years. Dr. Douglas is board certified by the American Academy of Pediatrics and is a member of the American Medical Association. Her clinical interests include preventative medicine and promoting vaccine safety and efficacy. In her spare time, Dr. Douglas enjoys international travel, reading, animal rescue, and New Orleans Saints football.