The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) updated its annual influenza (flu) season guidelines, withdrawing the child-friendly nasal flu vaccine, FluMist, this year. The vaccine has been deemed largely ineffective by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), leaving traditional shots as the only vaccination option. Here's what you need to know to stay ahead this flu season.
When is flu season?
Every year, local clinics begin providing flu vaccinations in the fall. While flu can be detected year-round, the virus is most common during the fall and winter. During typical flu seasons, influenza activity peaks in January or later.
"Flu season typically lasts from fall to spring," said Cindy Weston, DNP, RN, FNP-BC an assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Nursing. "The outbreak may peak at various times during those seasons, but people should be vaccinated before they return home for the holidays to prevent an outbreak."
Why should we get the flu shot?
It may seem like a hassle every year to go to your physician's office or pharmacy to get you and your family vaccinated, but Weston said it's very necessary; and don't worry, getting vaccinated won't give you the flu, contrary to popular belief.
"The flu strain mutates every year," Weston said. "The flu shot you get this year is different from the one you got last year because it is made specifically for the prominent strains of the virus."
The flu vaccination is created and distributed based on the mutation that the flu has undergone as it travels eastward through Europe and Asia. Although the flu may seem like merely an inconvenience, lack of vaccination could potentially lead to a fatal outbreak. According to the CDC, contagious influenza causes millions of illnesses, hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations and thousands of deaths every season.
"Every year people die from influenza," Weston said. "After sizable outbreaks, people will respond with large amounts of vaccinations, but they should be getting vaccinated every year to protect those most vulnerable, mainly children and the elderly."
Children under 6 months of age are too young to receive the vaccine in either mist or shot form, and other people may have severe allergies to flu vaccines or an ingredient in them. "These people are dependent upon everyone else getting immunized in order to stay at low risk for the flu," Weston said.
What options are available?
Until this year, the FluMist spray was available as an alternative to needles. The effectiveness has varied and was recently found to be unacceptably low. The CDC reported that the FluMist's effectiveness was just 3 percent during the 2015-2016 flu season; the injected vaccine had a 63 percent effectiveness rate.
The FluMist spray worked by injecting a live, but low in virulence, virus to try to increase the body's ability to develop antibodies to fight future exposure. This was the preferred method for children and adults who were uneasy with needles. However, given the AAP's recent recommendations against the mist, injections are the preferred application method. The vaccine will be 'inactivated,' which means that the virus is killed and the inactivated components stimulate the antibody production that protects against the virus.
The CDC recommends everyone 6 months and older receive an annual flu vaccination. Children ages 6 months to 8-years-old should get two doses, one month apart, for their first flu vaccine, or if they have never received two doses in a single season. Once children have received two doses in a season, every subsequent season they will only need one dose.
There are other forms of the flu vaccine recommended for certain demographics. A high dose shot is recommended for people 65 years of age or older, and an alternative form of vaccination—Flublok—is recommended for people over age 18 with severe egg allergies. The regular-dose shot is the most common form of the vaccine and is recommended for most people—including pregnant women.
Late September or early October is the ideal time to get your flu shot, but if you have concerns about possible local outbreaks, contact your health care provider.
"It takes two weeks after the immunization to develop appropriate antibodies in the body," Weston said. "The coverage is strongest for about six months, and it will help keep you and your community safer."
How else can I avoid the flu?
Taking appropriate preventive measures is one of the most important ways to stop the spread of the flu and other illnesses. "It is very important to practice good hygiene," Weston said. "Washing your hands properly, covering your cough, avoid hand contact with your face and eyes, and wiping down surfaces with disinfectant are all ways to help stop the spread of the flu."
Be on the lookout for these signs and symptoms of the flu:
sudden onset of high fever
cough and/or congestion
If you, or someone you know, show signs or symptoms of the flu, there is a 48-hour window from the onset of symptoms in which to begin anti-viral therapy, which lessens the severity and duration of influenza.
"The best way to avoid the flu is to get vaccinated," Weston said. "When it comes to you and your family's health, it's best to take the cautious approach and get your shot."