The Influenza Vaccine: Setting the Records Straight

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(This post was originally published January 22, 2014, and has been updated for the 2015-2016 influenza season.)

The bad news: cold and flu season is upon us. The good news: we can put up our dukes against it. The season is a hot topic amongst moms and I recall one particular day that was no exception. Discussion of who was ill and for how long infected a session at my yoga studio and the talk led to that of who got the flu vaccine, who did not, and the defense of their decisions. Back when I was a practicing physician assistant the misinformation about the flu vaccine was something I often addressed with my patients and the same rumor mill about getting a “jab” was alive and well over the yoga mats of Durango, Colorado. So bothered I was by the flu mythology that during savasana I couldn’t stop thinking about writing this blog post! Not good. I can’t have “final rest” interrupted…I get grouchy, like haven’t-had-my-morning-coffee grouchy.

So first, let’s clear the air regarding “flu” terminology. When we discuss the “flu” we most often think of nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. But influenza, while nicknamed the “flu” is completely different. Influenza (at which the flu vaccine is directed) is a respiratory illness that produces many symptoms similar to those of the common cold*** but these infections are caused by different types of viruses. Confused? Find yourself in good company… many people are. Which is likely why people are frustrated that they “got the flu vaccine and still got sick.” Simply put, coming down with a common cold or a stomach bug (neither of which is covered by any vaccine) does not mean the influenza vaccine was ineffective. “Flu” nomenclature is unnecessarily confusing, and the flu vaccine gets an unnecessarily bad rap. It’s an unfortunate lose-lose situation. (Just of note: I will use “influenza” and “flu” interchangeably in the rest of this post, for simplicity’s sake.)

But are you guaranteed immunity from influenza if you get the vaccine? And if not, why get the vaccine in the first place? Both are valid questions. And both have answers. Every year there are three (or four) strains of influenza virus in the formulation of the vaccine. These strains are chosen based on what flu viruses are expected to be prominent during the upcoming flu season. The system by which this decision is made is not perfect, as we all know: experts become the victims of hindsight when deemed to have “picked wrong.” Unfortunately no one, not even those at the top of the infectious disease field, can see accurately, year after year, into the future. But to address the question “Why get the vaccine in the first place if there is chance I’ll still get influenza?” the answer is: still get the shot (or the intranasal version if you meet the criteria). Why? Getting the vaccine still revs up the immune system. So if by chance you are exposed to influenza and fall ill, your symptoms may not be as severe as they would if you were not immunized at all. Given that about 200,000 people are hospitalized for influenza yearly and the disease can be fatal to even the healthiest of individuals, why take a chance?

I could include many more FACTS about influenza in this post, but I decided to focus on addressing some of the more common misinformation. For more questions and details about influenza itself or the vaccine, the CDC website (http://www.cdc.gov/flu/index.htm) is excellent. Click on “Flu Basics” and you will find a wealth of easy-to-peruse information.

***[You may be wondering why the word “facts” above is in caps. Nope, not a typo. Our local newspaper featured an article, “Is it a cold or the flu? How to tell” (printed in the Durango Herald, Monday, January 20, 2014, and written by Michelle Healy of USA Today). This article featured some great nuggets of information. The best in my opinion is the acronym FACTS, to help sort out whether symptoms are related to the common cold or influenza: Fever, Aches, Chills, Tiredness and Sudden onset (of symptoms) suggest the flu. However, this is a guideline and if you have any concerns at all, see your family’s physician.]

 

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