Influenza, commonly known as the flu, is an infectious disease caused by a virus. The flu can be deadly, especially in certain populations such as the very young, very old or those with weakened immune systems. I have seen the serious consequences of the flu firsthand, this has made me realize how important flu immunizations are.
What is influenza, or the flu?
The flu is caused by a virus that affects the lungs and airways, resulting in sudden onset of symptoms such as fevers, coughing, sore throats, headaches, extreme tiredness and muscle pains.
How is the flu spread?
The flu is passed from person to person by coughing, sneezing, or even talking. It can also be spread by touching objects carrying the virus.
How serious is the flu?
In Canada, the flu causes approximately 12,200 hospitalizations and 3500 deaths each year.
Who is at risk for the flu?
Everyone is at risk for the flu! The people that are at the highest risk of developing complications are infants and young children, elderly people, individuals with chronic disease, and pregnant women.
What precautions can be taken for myself and my little one to avoid the flu?
Frequent hand-washing or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer has been shown to reduce the risk of getting the flu. That, and getting your yearly flu shot!
The more years I practice medicine, the more people I see coming in with serious complications from the flu. As a result, every year I find myself discussing the flu shot more and more with my patients, friends and family.
These are the most common questions I get from people about the flu shot.
Why do I need to get the flu shot every year?
The flu is a virus (influenza) that changes year to year. There are many new strains of the flu each year and just because you got the flu shot last year doesn’t mean you are protected this year. A yearly flu vaccine is made to have the most common and severe strains of virus that cause the flu that particular year.
How long does it take the flu shot to work?
It takes 14 days to become effective.
I got my flu shot – why did I still get the flu?
The flu shot only covers a certain number of strains of influenza; you can still get the flu if you pick up a strain not included in the seasonal vaccine. Unfortunately, some people can also get sick with the flu strain that they were vaccinated for. However, studies have shown that people who get the flu who were vaccinated may have a less severe course of the illness.
Does the flu Shot work?
Yes! The CDC conducts studies every year to determine how well the flu vaccine protects against the flu virus. It can vary year to year, but recent studies show that flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness between 40% and 60%.
What are the side effects to the flu shot?
By far, the most common side effects is a sore arm at the injection site. Other less common side effects include slight headache, fever, or tiredness that usually subsides in 48 hours.
As a physician, I get lots and lots of questions about the flu each and every year from my patients. When talking with my patients, these are the most common misconceptions I hear about the flu shot:
MYTH: The flu shot makes you sick.
TRUTH: The vaccine is a dead vaccine, meaning it contains dead virus which cannot cause infection. This differs from a live vaccine that contains a weakened virus which can cause mild symptoms – but not a full-blown infection. The vaccine takes 2 weeks to become effective, so it is possible that you can contract an illness in that time frame. Some people blame this illness on the vaccine, however it is usually just a coincidence of timing.
MYTH: I am pregnant, so I can’t get my flu shot.
TRUTH: Being pregnant is not an excuse not to get the Flu Shot! The flu shot is safe during all stages of pregnancy and while breastfeeding. Pregnant women are actually at higher risk for complications (than non-pregnant women) due to influenza so it is even MORE IMPORTANT that they receive the vaccine in order to protect themselves and their babies.
MYTH: I can’t get the flu shot because I have an egg allergy.
TRUTH: People with egg allergies can receive the flu vaccine, however, it is recommend that people with a history of severe egg allergy be immunized in a medical setting where a health care provider can recognize and manage severe allergic reactions.
- Alberta Health: Government of Alberta (2017, July). Alberta’s Influenza Immunization Program Policy
- Alberta Health, Health System Accountability and Performance Division, Alberta Vaccine Cold Chain policy (2017, April)
- Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine Preventable Diseases. Hamborsky J., Kroger A., Wolfe S, eds. 13th ed. Washington D.C. Public Health Foundation 2015.
- Immunize Canada. Influenza. Retrieved Oct 16, 2017 from http://www.immunize.cpha.ca/en/diseases-vaccines/influenza.aspx
- National Advisory Committee on Immunization (2017). Canadian Immunization Guide Chapter on Influenza and Statement on Seasonal Influenza Vaccine for 2017-2018. Ottawa, ON: Public Health Agency of Canada
DISCLAIMER: This blog reflects my personal experience as a new mother. The content on this blog is provided solely for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for informed medical advice. Please seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health care professional regarding medical conditions or questions.