The weather has begun to cool, the leaves are falling from the trees and football is continuously on TV. It can only mean one thing: flu season has begun.
The flu, which anyone who has had it can tell you, is not the common cold or just feeling under the weather for a few days. The season lasts from November to April and each year causes 36,000 deaths and hospitalizes over 200,000 people in the United States alone. The flu is a virus that is spread through the air and affects the respiratory tract. Although there are new anti-viral medications, such as Tamiflu, which can be taken within 48 hours of being infected with or exposed to the flu, it is far more beneficial to prevent the flu by getting vaccinated.
Unlike other vaccines, the flu vaccine changes annually. Each year the vaccine contains three virus strains. From year to year, those strains change depending on which virus strains are predicted to be the most prevalent for that upcoming winter. This year all three strains will be new. For this reason, having been vaccinated last year will not necessarily help you to stave off the flu this year.
Can the flu vaccine give you the flu? If you are getting a flu shot, the answer is no. The flu vaccine comes in two forms: the shot and the nasal spray, Flumist. The shot is an inactive, dead virus and cannot give you the flu. If you get a cold after the vaccine, you were going to get that cold anyway. Contrary to popular belief, it is just a coincidence that you got the flu vaccine and a cold at the same time. The other confusing fact that causes some people to think that the shot gave them the flu is that some of the side effects of the vaccine may make you feel as if you are getting a cold. Side effects of the vaccine include fever, increased tiredness and muscle aches. However for most people, the only side effect from the flu shot is soreness at the injection site.
The second form of the vaccine is the nasal spray, Flumist, which is approved for people 2-49 years old. It is a live vaccine. This means that a live, weakened virus is used. This form of the vaccine can cause a runny nose, congestion and cold like symptoms, but nothing comparable to having the flu. Because it is a live virus it cannot be given to pregnant women, the elderly, or anyone with a compromised immune system. It should also not be given to anyone who has asthma, reactive airway disease, or a history of wheezing. The benefit of the nasal spray is that no injection is required.
Is there thimerosal in the flu vaccine? Thimerosal is a mercury containing compound that has been used as a preservative in vaccines for years. However, in light of recent controversy over thimerosal and nuerodevelopmental disorders, in 1999 and in 2000 the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Center for Disease Control issued joint statements encouraging vaccine manufactures to remove thimerosal from pediatric vaccine preparations. As a result most routine pediatric vaccines are now thimerosal-free. For more information on thimerosal and a complete list of vaccines and their thimerosal content visit www.fda.gov/CbER/vaccine/thimerosal.htm.
There are multiple manufactures of the flu vaccine. Below is a breakdown of which shots contain thimerosal and are thimerosal-free.
Flumist (nasal spray): Approved for healthy, non-pregnant people 2-49 years of age: Thimerosal-free
FluZone (shot): Approved for people 6 months of age and older.
3 forms -Single dose vials: Thimerosal-free
Single dose pre-filled syringes: Thimerosal-free
Multi-dose vials: Contains Thimerosal
Fluvirin (shot): Approved for people 4 years and older
Afluria (shot): Approved for people 18 years and older
Fluarix (shot): Approved for people 18 years and older
FluLavil (shot): Approved for people 18 years and older
Who should get the flu shot? It is recommended that everyone 6 months of age and older get vaccinated. Children under 9 years of age, getting their first flu vaccination, will need two shots separated by at least 4 weeks. Since a majority of those hospitalized with the flu are children less than 5 years old and the elderly, anyone who comes into contact with this population should also be vaccinated. If you have a newborn at home, parents, siblings and care-takers (including nannies, babysitters, and grandparents) should all be vaccinated since it is not possible to vaccinate the infant himself. Pregnant women should also be vaccinated. By receiving the vaccine while pregnant, mothers can impart some protection onto their newborns. The main contraindication to receiving the flu vaccine is an anaphylactic, allergic reaction to eggs.
Flu vaccines are available in most doctors' offices. Many pharmacies also have times when flu shots are available. To find where flu shots are available near you visit Prevent Influenza. ( along with enjoying all the wonderful things of autumn be sure to get your flu shot this year so that come winter, you and you're family will be well protected.
For more information on the Influenza virus and vaccination visit:
The Center for Disease Control: http://www.cdc.gov/flu/