The Flu Vaccine

Myths and truths


By Dr. Jason Kettler

We never know exactly when the flu will hit the Northwest, but sometime in November is a pretty safe bet. Receiving a flu vaccination can save you the misery and complications of this illness. Symptoms include fever, cough, headache, chills, muscle aches and congestion. The flu is miserable at best. It can lead to serious complications, hospitalizations and death at worst. This is especially true for the young, the elderly and anyone who has a compromised immune system. But don’t fool yourself. Each year, even healthy children and adults die from the flu. Despite this, many people choose not to get a flu vaccine. Here’s what you should know.

Each year a vaccine is developed based on research about which strains of flu are likely to emerge. (Vaccines usually cover three or four strains.) Each strain has different characteristics and can affect different segments of the population. And those population segments aren’t always the ones we think of as especially vulnerable. For example, in 2009 the H1N1 flu strain re-emerged. It has a penchant for afflicting young, healthy people with intact immune systems. The famous Spanish flu pandemic that killed millions in 1918 overwhelmingly struck healthy younger adults.

You can’t catch the flu from a flu shot. The virus used in the vaccine is not alive. While a live virus is used to make the nasal mist version of the vaccine, it’s greatly weakened and likewise does not usually cause the flu.

The idea that the flu is a disease that’s pretty harmless is false. This isn’t to say you won’t recover, but there can be serious complications such as pneumonia, sinus infections, bronchitis, ear infections and the worsening of chronic health conditions such as asthma, heart failure or diabetes.

You’re not instantly protected from the flu after being immunized. It takes several weeks for your body to develop the antibodies that protect you. If you’re exposed to the flu virus after you are immunized, but before you’ve developed antibodies, you may come down with the flu. But it’s from exposure to the flu or other respiratory virus, not from the flu vaccine.

Flu season tends to start in November, so it’s ideal to get the vaccine in early October.

Some people are concerned about the vaccine causing Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare but serious autoimmune disorder that affects the nervous system after certain infections. Researchers believe that the flu itself is more likely to cause the syndrome than a flu vaccination.

People with egg allergies are often told to avoid flu immunizations. However, most individuals allergic to eggs can safely get a flu shot. The benefit of receiving the vaccine outweighs the small risk of an allergic reaction. If you have an egg allergy, talk with your medical provider. Egg-free preparations of the vaccine do exist.

Finally, I still hear from parents who are fearful of a link between vaccinations and autism even though scientists and researchers repeatedly have confirmed that there is no link. So go ahead and protect yourself and your children with the flu vaccine. You’ll all have a healthier winter.

Dr. Jason Kettler is an infectious disease specialist with the Group Health Medical Centers Bellevue clinic. Group Health is a consumer-governed, nonprofit health care system that integrates care and coverage with more than 1,000 physicians in 60 specialties at 25 medical centers across Washington.

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