By Purvi Parikh, M.D.October 22, 2015 6:00 AM
- Fever. Body aches. Exhaustion. Incessant coughing.
You likely have the flu. Hours ago, you were at work, feeling fine, and now all you want to do is crawl under the covers.
You could have avoided this -- if you had listened to the countless medical experts who recommend the flu vaccine for everyone older than 6 months.
"The flu" is a generic term for the many human influenza viruses that circle the globe and change every year. The viruses attack the respiratory system, so people with asthma are at greater risk for flu and flu-related complications such as bronchitis or pneumonia. Given that 25 million people in the U.S. have asthma, and 10 people die from the disease daily, protection against the flu and pneumonia is vital.
Why Get a Flu Vaccination?
Influenza is more than just a few days in bed -- it can be deadly. Groups most at risk of severe complications include people with asthma, adults 65 and older, pregnant women and children younger than 5 years -- especially those younger than 2.
What too many people ignore is that flu is preventable. Last year, 146 children died from the flu -- that's 146 preventable deaths.
The flu vaccine -- typically available as a shot or nasal spray at your doctor's office, community clinic, pharmacy and some supermarkets -- is the best insurance against succumbing to symptoms of the flu and passing it on to others in your family or community. That's why vaccination is particularly important for all family members and others in contact with high-risk groups or infants too young for a flu shot.
The more people get the vaccine, the more we reduce the number of people carrying and spreading the virus to others. It's called "herd immunity," and it not only protects you, but those with a weaker immune system.
Who Should Get a Flu Vaccination?
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the flu vaccine for everyone older than 6 months. More than half (52.9 percent) of the U.S. population ignored the recommendation in 2014-15, according to the CDC.
All people with asthma should get the flu shot -- flu can be more severe and dangerous for this population, as well as those with other chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.
There are numerous flu vaccine options available for children, the elderly and other at-risk groups. Talk with your doctor about your specific case. Egg allergy is no longer considered a problem, but if you're concerned about an allergy to the shot, see a board-certified allergist for testing to determine if it is the preservative in the vaccine or the actual injection.
You can't get the flu from the vaccine, but it does take at least two weeks after you get vaccinated for your immune system to build up a defense. If you get the flu during that time, you probably were exposed before your vaccination, or exposed to different strains than are contained in the current vaccine. It did not come from the vaccine.
Do not get the flu shot if you are recovering from a cold or already have flu symptoms. Your immune system is in overdrive at that point, and the vaccine may not take hold.
Since many school-age children have a persistent runny nose or cough from the first day of school to the last, it may be difficult to schedule getting the flu shot between sniffles and wheezes. Your best bet is to keep children as healthy as possible, teach good hygiene and talk to your doctor about the best time to get the flu shot. Frequent handwashing during the flu season and staying home when sick are vital steps to staying healthy.
What About the Pneumonia Vaccine?
Pneumonia, or pneumococcal, immunization programs in recent years have led to a substantial reduction in infection caused by strains of pneumococcal bacteria.
There are two types of pneumonia vaccines recommended by CDC: pneumococcal conjugate vaccine 13 (PCV13) for children younger than 5 years old, adults 65 years or older and people 6 years or older with certain risk factors; and pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23) for adults 65 years or older and high-risk people 2 through 64 years old. It is now recommended that all people with asthma and anyone exposed to tobacco smoke also receive the pneumonia vaccine.
Discuss the pneumonia vaccine with your doctor, as some groups should receive both shots. What most people don't realize is that this vaccine also protects against sinus infections and ear infections, as it's the same bacteria that causes pneumonias.
For more information, the CDC provides guidance specific to this year's flu season at http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/season/upcoming.htm.
If you haven't had your vaccines yet, make an appointment today.
Purvi Parikh, MD, is an allergist and immunologist with Allergy & Asthma Network , the leading nonprofit patient education organization for people with allergies, asthma and related conditions. She practices in New York City at Allergy and Asthma Associates of Murray Hill and New York University School of Medicine. She sits on the Board of Directors for the advocacy council of the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.