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Guest column, Celeste Vickery: Parsing fact and fiction about annual flu vaccine and why you need one
Flu shot AP

Cooler temperatures, crisp air and the changing of the leaves can only mean one thing — the start of flu season! The flu, also known as influenza, infects around 50 million Americans a year. The typical flu season starts in October and peaks in the winter months, between December and February, with infections continuing into spring. 

Flu infections lead to approximately 500,000 hospitalizations each year, and the previous influenza season led to 25,000-60,000 deaths in the U.S. 

Over the past seven months, COVID-19 has put a significant strain on our health care system. Our hospitals were teetering on the edge of full capacity or at full capacity. Many people are asking, “What could make 2020 worse?” My answer to that is a flu pandemic concurrent with the COVID pandemic. 

The same way we reduce the spread of COVID-19 (mask wearing, social distancing and good hand hygiene) will also help prevent a flu pandemic. We, your health care community, are asking you to take an additional step by receiving your seasonal flu vaccine. I understand that there are many concerns surrounding the flu vaccine. I’d like to take a moment now to address some of these concerns:

I never get the flu, why do I need the vaccine?

That’s great, if you’re one of those lucky people that has never had the flu. However, there’s no guarantee that you won’t get it this flu season or in the future. Also, by getting the vaccine you’re not just protecting yourself, you also protect your family, friends and your community. 

Being vaccinated against influenza will not only decrease your chances of being infected with and spreading the flu (by 40-60%), it also has the added benefits of reducing the amount of time you are sick and the severity of your symptoms (if you are infected with influenza), decreasing your risk for hospitalization (by 40%) and your risk of requiring treatment in the intensive care unit (by 82%).

But doc, last time I got the vaccine I still got sick!

The most likely cause of getting sick despite being vaccinated is having been infected with another virus that manifested with similar flu-like symptoms. There are many respiratory viruses that circulate during the same time as the flu and may cause similar cold and flu-like symptoms. 

There is also the possibility that you were exposed to the influenza virus before your body had time to build up immunity following the vaccination. On average, it takes two weeks for your body to build immunity after receiving the vaccine. 

The flu vaccine reduces infection rates by 40-60% in those who have been vaccinated. This means there is still a chance that you might be infected with influenza despite being vaccinated. However, as mentioned above, those who have been vaccinated are expected to have a shorter duration of illness, milder symptoms and be less likely to require hospitalization. 

The vaccine made me sick last year. 

There are different types of flu vaccines on the market; however, they are all made from either a dead virus or a piece of the virus. This means the vaccine itself cannot infect you with the flu. It is possible that the vaccine causes a low-grade fever, body aches and mild fatigue as your immune system responds to the dead virus or pieces of the virus. This immune response is part of your body’s process for developing the antibodies that protect you from influenza infection. 

The vaccine can be administered as a nasal spray or a shot. The shot form, which is most frequently used, does not cause runny noses, sneezing, nausea or vomiting. If you had these symptoms after the vaccine, it is likely that you were infected with a virus that has similar symptoms to influenza. 

There is also the possibility that you were exposed to the influenza virus before your body was able to develop immunity (two weeks.) However, to reiterate, the vaccine itself does not cause a cold or flu infection.

I got the vaccine last year; do I need it again this year?

Yes, the flu virus mutates or changes every season and the immunity provided by the influenza vaccine decreases over time. Thus, we recommend a flu vaccine every influenza season. 

This means, if you were vaccinated during the previous flu season, fall 2019 to spring 2020, you need this season’s influenza vaccine to boost your immunity for the fall 2020 to spring 2021 flu season.  

Is it too late for me to get the flu vaccine?

No! On average, flu infections peak between December and March, with the season starting in fall and ending in late spring. Getting vaccinated any time while the flu is still infecting people in your community will help protect you. 

Our Gainesville community has done a great job stepping up to join our fight against COVID-19. Now, we are asking you to help us fight the flu by continuing to wash your hands, wear your mask, watch your distance and speak with your doctor or pharmacist about getting your flu vaccine! By getting vaccinated against influenza, you can help protect yourself and our community.

For more information, visit ngpg.org/flu

Celeste Vickery is a part of the family medicine resident program at Northeast Georgia Health System. Columns will publish monthly from residents in the program.

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