What You Need to Know to Weather This Year's Flu Season in Illinois
Find out what's new for the 2014-2015 flu season and why getting vaccinated is so important.
The beginning of fall means one thing: Flu season, which generally runs from October to May, is about to rage. Although nobody can predict how bad any flu season will be, experts do know one thing for certain. “The influenza virus, which is actually with us all year, is waiting to strike,” says William Schaffner, MD, past president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everybody six months and older get a yearly flu vaccine, especially given how severe the 2013-2014 season was. During that season, 107 children, of whom approximately 90 percent hadn’t been vaccinated and nearly half of whom had no prior health issues, died from the flu. Experts say those deaths could have been prevented.
Surprisingly, adults 18 to 64 years old have been increasingly affected by the flu in recent years, according to CDC data. One likely explanation for this increase is that while 46 percent of all Americans age six months and older got the flu vaccine, only 33.9 percent of adults aged 18 to 64 were vaccinated last year.
Getting the flu vaccine is especially crucial for people in high-risk populations. They include children younger than five (with an emphasis on children under two), adults 65 years and older, pregnant women, American Indians, Alaskan natives, and people with health issues like asthma, heart disease, and chronic lung issues.
In the end, though, everybody is vulnerable, which is why the CDC has issued such sweeping guidelines. “Nobody is exempt from the flu, and there’s no reason to take a risk by not getting vaccinated, especially since there are more vaccines, all of them safe, than ever to protect you and many more places where you can get vaccinated,” Schaffner says.
So when should you get vaccinated? As early as possible, since it takes about two weeks before you gain immunity from the shots, says Daniel McGee, MD, pediatric hospitalist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich. That being said, “unless you wait until June when the season is officially over, it’s never too late,” he adds.
New CDC Recommendations
Before you get your vaccination, know that the CDC has issued a few new guidelines and recommendations. For starters, adults 65 and older are now urged to get two vaccines against pneumococcal disease, a potential complication of the flu that can be deadly, causing pneumonia, meningitis, and blood poisoning.
It can be a little confusing, but in simplest terms, if you haven’t ever been vaccinated against pneumococcal disease, you’ll need to get one dose of pneumococcal conjugate vaccine first. Six to 12 months later, you’ll need to get the second vaccine, called the pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine. Fortunately, you only need one dose of each vaccine in life, and they can be given at the same time as the flu vaccine, Schaffner says.
Additionally, the nasal spray vaccine is the preferred delivery method for children ages two to eight without contraindications, including a weakened immune system, a history of egg allergy, kids receiving aspirin therapy, and children ages two through four who have had asthma or wheezing during the last 12 months. “Studies show that children of this age mount a slightly better immune response to this vaccine than others,” McGee says. Yet if this vaccine isn’t available to your kids, don’t wait. Get them vaccinated with whatever is available to you at the time.
Another update for kids, specifically for those ages six months through eight years: They may require two doses, especially if they’re getting vaccinated for the first time. That’s because they may not be protected against the H1N1 virus, which wasn’t added to the seasonal vaccine until the 2010-2011 flu season, according to the CDC. Ask your physician if your child needs two doses; if so, they’ll need to be given at least 28 days apart.
Your Flu-Fighting Plan
Of course, getting the flu vaccine doesn’t guarantee that you won’t get the flu, but that shouldn’t deter you from getting vaccinated. “While it’s not a perfect vaccine, perhaps only 40 to 55 percent effective in completely preventing infection, if you do get ill, you’ll get a milder infection and have less complications,” Schaffner says.
Besides getting vaccinated, follow the CDC’s flu-fighting strategies, which include frequent handwashing, not touching your eyes, nose and mouth, covering your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze, and avoiding close contact with sick people. If you get sick, stay home for at least 24 hours until your fever is gone and limit contact with others. Also, seeing a physician shortly after developing flu symptoms may allow for treatment with an anti-viral medication, which can shorten the duration of the illness and decrease flu-related complications.