It's that time of year again. As days shorten, evenings become chilly and the trees start a showy display of color, it's time to roll up your sleeve and get your annual flu vaccine.
What's that? You say you never get sick and the flu isn't a big deal? Or that you know someone whose cousin got really sick from the flu vaccine? Or the vaccine can cause dangerous side effects?
"None of that is true," said Dr. Charlene Chick, a family physician at the Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine (RowanSOM). "Here's what is true: seasonal flu sounds harmless, but it causes thousands of illnesses and deaths every year. Along with nasty symptoms like sore throat, high fever, body aches and coughing, the flu can lead to bronchitis or pneumonia, which is a serious and potentially life-threatening infection."
According to its study of the 2012-2013 flu season, the CDC estimates that the flu vaccine prevented 79,000 hospitalizations and 6.6 million illnesses. Still, more than 381,000 Americans were hospitalized because of flu-related illness during that season.
"You may be one of the lucky ones who can skip the vaccine and not get sick," Dr. Chick said. "But to avoid contact with the virus you would also have to avoid going out in public during flu season or touching those places - like elevator buttons, door knobs, ATM keypads and stair railings - where the flu can be left behind by someone who is infected."
Here are some other myths and misconceptions about seasonal flu and Dr. Chick's responses:
I'm not eligible to get the vaccine.
"Are you older than six months? If so, you are eligible to get the vaccine."
I rarely get sick and have never had the flu.
"There is no way to predict who will and who will not get the flu. If you do contract the virus you could pass it on to people who aren't as healthy and are vulnerable to complications from the flu. Babies younger than six months cannot be vaccinated. People who are 65 or older account for 90 percent of flu-related deaths and more than half of flu-related hospitalizations. You can spread the virus to others one day before your symptoms appear and up to seven days after."
I just don't like needles.
"The flu vaccine is also available as a nasal spray."
Flu vaccines can give you the flu.
"The injectable flu vaccine is made either with dead viruses or with no flu viruses at all and cannot cause the illness. The nasal spray vaccine is made with weakened viruses that cannot cause infection in the warmer environment found in the lungs. Because it can take your body up to two weeks after vaccination to develop full immunity, it is possible to get the flu if you are exposed to the virus during that time frame."
The flu is no more than a bad cold.
"Colds and flu share similar symptoms, but colds will develop gradually, and the flu strikes suddenly with body aches, fatigue and, in some people, fever that can hang on for days. The sudden, miserable, achy-all-over feeling from the flu is like the classic 'hit by a truck' feeling."
Saying the flu is "dangerous" is just hype.
"Flu seasons are unpredictable. During the mildest flu seasons, this country still will experience about 3,000 influenza-related deaths. That number can balloon to 49,000 fatalities during severe outbreaks."
I'm allergic to the vaccine.
"Most vaccines are developed using chicken egg embryos. If your only reaction to eating eggs is hives, you can probably receive the flu vaccine. If you do have an egg allergy, let your doctor know before getting the vaccine."
The vaccine has side effects/doesn't really work.
"While the vaccine isn't foolproof, it is your best defense against the flu. Temporary side effects from the injectable vaccine can include soreness at the injection site and a low-grade fever while the nasal spray version may cause some people to have a runny nose or a mild sore throat, headache or a cough."
I don't have the time to get a vaccine.
"Many state, local and county health departments offer free flu vaccines at different times and locations. Some even provide a 'drive-by' clinic that eliminates the need to even get out of your car. You can contact your primary care provider for a convenient appointment. Most health insurance policies will cover the cost of the vaccine."