Flu season is upon us again. Traditionally, flu season starts in October and tapers off towards the end of April when the weather begins to get warmer in temperate regions of the world. According to the US Center for Disease Control (CDC), the last two weeks in January will usually see a significant uptick in flu cases. During the 2018/2019 flu season, there were 140,000 hospitalizations from complications of the flu. There were around 8200 deaths reported due to flu during that time period. The first step to prevent the flu is to get the flu vaccine.
If there was any time when a person could not afford to be sick with the flu, it is now. In this post, we will talk about the flu shot, what the vaccine does and why 2020 is a pivotal year to get the flu vaccine.
Are you high-risk?
Anybody older than 6 months should get a yearly flu vaccine. If you fall into any of the high-risk categories below, it is especially important that you get a flu vaccine this year.
- Adults over the age of 65
- Pregnant women
- Individuals with heart disease
- Individuals with diabetes
- A person who has a weakened immune system due to a condition like HIV/AIDS or cancer
- Children with neurological or neurodevelopmental conditions
- People who have asthma
- Children younger than 2 years
- People with blood disorders such as sickle cell disease
- People who are obese (Body Mass Index – BMI > 40)
What does the flu vaccine actually do?
Vaccines prepare your immune system to fight infections when your body encounters it a second time. Your immune system, the system in your body that fights off infections, has antibodies. Some of these antibodies are created when you come into contact with a virus or some types of bacteria for the first time.
After that first exposure to the bacteria or virus, your immune system builds a “memory” in the form of antibodies which are ready to fight off an infection quicker and more efficiently the next time your body sees that same (or similar) bacteria or virus.
When you receive a vaccine, your body is introduced to either an inactivated/killed, an attenuated (this means the disease-causing agent is live but not virulent or able to cause disease) or you may receive a subunit (a part) of the disease-causing agent.
When a person receives these types of vaccines, it introduces the disease-causing agent or a portion of it to your immune system and therefore will allow your body to build immunity against a real infection. The flu vaccine is typically an attenuated virus.
Flu vaccine ingredients: What is in your flu vaccine?
Egg protein – Viruses used in vaccines are routinely grown in fertilized chicken eggs. Thus it is likely your flu shot will contain some egg proteins.
Formaldehyde – Formaldehyde is used to inactivate the virus. Formaldehyde is a chemical that occurs naturally in your body. The amount in the flu vaccine is minimal and causes no harm to most people.
Polysorbate 80 – This keeps all the ingredients of your flu vaccine evenly distributed and prevents them from separating. This same ingredient is used in your salad dressing to keep the ingredients evenly distributed.
Stabilizers – Sucrose, sorbitol and monosodium glutamate are used to keep the vaccine stable so that it does not degrade in the presence of light or for instance, when it is removed from the refrigerator. Sucrose is in the sugar you put in your coffee. Sorbitol is regularly found in chewing gum. Monosodium glutamate used to be an additive in many Chinese-American foods.
All of these ingredients are at low concentrations.
Antibiotics – Antibiotics are also added into the vaccine to prevent bacterial contamination of the vaccine.
If you are allergic to any of these ingredients, it is important to tell the healthcare provider.
Flu vaccine side effects
Most side effects of the flu vaccine are mild. You might experience fever, headache and fatigue after receiving the flu shot. This will usually go away after a day or two.
Some people also report tenderness, swelling and pain at the injection site. This is also common and will resolve in 1-3 days. If you experience a severe allergic reaction such as trouble breathing, hives, swelling of your eyes and lips, dizziness or severe weakness, you should visit an emergency room immediately.
Why do I need the flu shot each year?
The influenza virus is a master of changing components of itself. Your immune system uses these components of the virus as a recognition system (think of barcodes) to first of all recognize, and then get rid of the virus.
Think of the virus as behaving like a chameleon. Chameleons are well-known to change their colors to match their environment. Each year, the flu virus “changes its color” so that it could possibly evade the immune system and avoid destruction.
Thus, every year, using special calculations and predictive models, researchers come up with a vaccine that will be most effective against the new virus of the season.
Therefore, the vaccine you received in 2017 for instance, worked for the virus from 2017. For the 2020/2021 flu season, it is very likely the virus is different and you would need a different vaccine.
This is why you should get a vaccine each year.
What happens if I don’t take the flu vaccine?
If you are in a high-risk group, getting the flu shot this year will protect you from flu-related complications that also lead to death.
In addition to the fact that a hospital is the last place you want to be during this pandemic, here is a list of flu complications.
- Pneumonia is a bacterial infection that leads to the swelling of air sacs in the lungs which can then fill up with liquid. Once the air sacs fill up with liquid, breathing becomes very difficult.
- These bronchial tubes in your lungs are responsible for carrying oxygen from the environment to your lungs. If the bronchial tubes are unable to do this, it can also lead to breathing problems.
- Ear and sinus infections.
- Flu makes chronic health conditions worse. If a person with asthma gets the flu, it could increase the number of asthmatic attacks that person has.
- For people who have a weakened immune system, for instance, individuals with HIV/AIDS or cancer, because they have nothing to fight against the virus, the virus can cause an overwhelming infection that then kills the person.
- We are in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Flu could make getting COVID-19 even worse.
Getting a flu shot might take an hour of your workday. But it is worth it for a year of protection. Especially now.
For employers, this might mean making the flu shot free or providing it at a reduced cost to employees each season as part of your company health and wellness plan.