Vaccinations can keep flu season at bay

The days are long and hot, kids are just beginning to return to school, farmers and ranchers are still irrigating, and winter seems like a long way off. But infectious disease experts are already hard at work figuring out the best ways to keep people healthy this coming cold and flu season.

Marc Meyer, RPh, infection preventionist at Southwest Memorial Hospital, said that although flu season usually peaks in January and February in the Four Corners, cases of flu are already being reported in certain parts of the country.

“You should get your flu shot this year just as soon as it’s available,” Meyer said.

The flu vaccine is starting to show up in some pharmacies and will be available throughout the flu season at local clinics, doctor’s offices, and at the health department, Meyer said.

While the Centers for Disease Control recommends that everyone over the age of 6 months get a flu shot each year, certain groups are at especially high risk for the flu and it’s even more important for them to be vaccinated. These groups include pregnant women, children under the age of 5, adults over the age of 50, anyone with a chronic medical condition, people in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, health care workers, anyone who cares for an individual considered high risk for contracting the flu, and everyone in a household where there is a baby younger than 6 months.

“Children under 6 months of age don’t get vaccinated because their immune systems can’t process the vaccine,” Meyer said. “It’s important to form a circle of healthy people around small babies during flu season.”

The only individuals who should not be vaccinated are those under the age of 6 months, those who have a severe allergy to chicken eggs, anyone who has had a severe reaction to the vaccination in the past, and people who developed Guillain-Barre syndrome within six weeks of getting the flu vaccine. If you have a fever on the day you’re planning to get your flu shot, wait until you recover to get the vaccination.

The makeup of the vaccine is adjusted annually based on what scientists determine about which strains of the flu are most likely to be prevalent in a given year.

“There is usually one for the northern hemisphere and one for the southern hemisphere. This year they have the same content,” Meyer said.

Individuals getting vaccinated this year will have some new options. In addition to the standard flu shot that is injected in the upper arm, an intradermal vaccine is now available. Intradermal means that the vaccine is injected just under the skin, rather than into the muscle.

“This is only for patients who are 18-64 years of age,” Meyer said.

One benefit of the intradermal method is that it’s a little less painful than a regular flu shot, which usually results in a mild aching at the injection site for a day or two.

For patients 65 and over, the high dose flu shot will be available this year for the second time.

“This vaccine is four times stronger than the regular flu shot,” Meyer said.

As we age, our immune systems become less hardy, so this special formula is recommended for older adults.

“The preliminary data is showing that seniors get a stronger immune response with the high dose shot. Studies will be ongoing through 2015 to confirm that theory,” Meyer said.

Flu vaccine in the form of a mist that is inhaled is also available.

“The mist is a live vaccine, and it’s approved for healthy people between the ages of 2 and 49 who are not pregnant and who don’t have respiratory problems,” Meyer said.

The standard flu shot and the new intradermal injections both contain a “killed” virus. The advantage of the mist is that it tends to work a little better because it mimics how people normally get exposed to the flu — through inhaled particles.

Once you get your flu vaccine, it takes about two weeks to develop a good immunity to the illness. We all know someone who says they never get a flu shot because one time they got vaccinated and then immediately came down with the flu.

“That’s coincidence,” Meyer said. “The flu shot is an inactivated protein and can’t cause the flu.”

To help prevent the spread of the flu (and the common cold) this year, follow these simple rules: Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue to cough or sneeze then throw the tissue away; if you don’t have a tissue handy, cough or sneeze into the crook of your arm (not into your hands); wash your hands often with soap and water; use alcohol-based hand sanitizers; and avoid close contact with anyone who is sick.

If you get the flu, try to see your doctor within 48 hours if you’re in one of the high-risk groups (under 5, pregnant, suffering from a chronic illness, over 65), because there are antiviral medications available that may lessen the symptoms or shorten the duration of the illness.

If you’re otherwise healthy and come down with the flu, stay at home (no work, no school) so that you don’t spread germs to others. Rest, drink fluids, take over-the-counter medication to reduce fever, and if your symptoms are severe or don’t resolve within three or four days, call your health care provider for advice.

Southwest Health Notes is a public service feature provided by Southwest Memorial Hospital in Cortez, Colorado. The information provided herein is not intended as patient-specific medical advice or as a substitute for consultation with your personal health care provider.