Each year, between 25 million and 50 million Americans will suffer with the fever, chills, body aches and upper respiratory problems brought on by viral influenza, better known as the flu. And for many people, especially older adults, very young children and people with chronic diseases or immune deficiencies, the flu is much more than a miserable inconvenience – it’s often life-threatening.
Fortunately, the flu is preventable with an early dose of the flu vaccine. Whether you receive the vaccine by injection or by intra-nasal vaccine drops, University of Michigan physician Gary L. Freed, M.D., MPH, a member of the National Vaccine Advisory Committee for the United States Department of Health and Human Services, advises everyone to get a flu shot as soon as possible.
“The flu is actually quite a common disease,” says Freed, the director of the Division of General Pediatrics at the U-M Health System and the Percy and Mary Murphy Professor of Pediatrics and Child Health Delivery at the U-M Medical School. “It usually starts in some parts of the country around September and lasts until the end of March, with the peak season being from the end of December through the beginning of March.”
The flu is a respiratory virus characterized by a fever, headache, runny nose, stuffy nose, aches and pains, and chills. Typically, the flu lasts about a week and is spread from person to person by droplets that are coughed or sneezed into the air. You can get the flu by simply touching a surface, such as a doorknob, contaminated by someone with the flu.
For most people, Freed says, the flu is not dangerous. However, each year about 114,000 people in the U.S. who contract the flu are hospitalized, and more than 30,000 die from the respiratory virus.
People at the greatest risk for severe flu symptoms are those over age 65, those with chronic respiratory conditions such as emphysema or immune problems, and children less than 6 months old.
That’s why Freed stresses the importance of getting vaccinated against the flu each year, not only for high-risk groups, but also for the general public.
“The flu vaccine is a very effective tool and is widely available,” he says. “It’s the best defense against the flu on an individual basis, and it also decreases the likelihood of an epidemic in a community.”
In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people 50 or older, pregnant women, health care providers, and those who are immunocompromised or have serious health problems get vaccinated each year.
The optimal time to get your flu shot is in October or November – especially if you are in a high-risk group – before flu season starts to peak in December. It typically takes about two weeks following vaccination for your body to build up its defenses to protect against the flu.
But if you’re not able to get your flu shot before December, Freed says not to worry. It’s never too late to get the flu vaccine either in the form of a nasal spray or a shot.
The intra-nasal vaccine, recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration, is both the first nasally-administered vaccine and the first live virus influenza vaccine to be sold in the U.S.
Since the intra-nasal spray uses a weakened live virus – unlike the traditional flu shot that uses a dead virus – it is recommended only for people between the ages of 5 and 49. The intra-nasal spray also cannot be given to women who are pregnant, people with immune problems or those who have severe chronic diseases. People with a strong allergy to eggs should avoid getting the flu vaccine in either form since eggs are used to make the flu vaccine.
Overall, the flu vaccine is very safe, and it is very rare to have side-effects related to the vaccine.
“I strongly recommend that people get the flu vaccine while they can,” says Freed. “It’s possible there may be shortages again this year.”