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Protect yourself and everyone else by getting a flu shot

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Influenza is a serious contagious disease that can lead to hospitalization and even death. The good news is that flu vaccines can protect against it, everyday precautions such as hand-washing can prevent the spread of germs that cause respiratory illness, and antiviral drugs your doctor prescribes can make illnesses milder.

In the nearly four decades I’ve worked in public health there have been some constants regarding influenza, but predicting how severe the next flu season will be is not one of them. While flu spreads every year, the timing, severity, and length of the season all vary from one year to another. That’s because flu viruses are constantly changing, so it’s not unusual for new flu viruses to appear each year. Flu activity most commonly peaks in January or February. However, seasonal flu activity can begin as early as October and continue to occur as late as May.

Some constants are that public health recommends a yearly flu vaccine to protect against this serious disease. While there are many different flu viruses, the seasonal flu vaccine is designed to protect against the top three or four flu viruses that research indicates will cause the most illness during the flu season. People should begin getting vaccinated soon after flu vaccine becomes available to ensure that as many people as possible are protected before flu season begins. It takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies to develop in the body and provide protection against the flu.

Influenza can make anyone seriously ill; however, vaccination is especially important for people at high risk for serious flu complications and their close contacts. During a regular flu season, about 90 percent of deaths occur in people 65 years and older. Other deaths often occur in young children and people with weakened immune systems.

Children between 6 months and 8 years of age may need two doses of flu vaccine to be fully protected from flu. Your child’s health care provider can tell you whether two doses are recommended for your child. The two doses should be given at least four weeks apart. Children younger than 6 months are at higher risk of serious flu complications, but they are too young to get a flu vaccine. Because infants under 6 months cannot get a vaccine, safeguarding them from flu is especially important. If you live with or care for young infants, you should get a flu vaccine to help protect them from flu.

Starting this flu season, the use of the nasal spray vaccine (LAIV) is now recommended in healthy children 2 to 8 years of age, when it is immediately available and if the child has no contraindications or precautions to that vaccine. Recent studies suggest that the nasal spray flu vaccine may work better than the flu shot in younger children. However, if the flu shot is available and the nasal spray vaccine is not, children age 2 to 8 years should get the flu shot. Don’t delay vaccination to find the nasal spray flu vaccine.

Flu vaccines are offered by many doctors’ offices, clinics, health departments, pharmacies, urgent care centers, and college health centers, as well as by many employers, and even by some schools. Don’t believe persistent myths like getting a flu shot can give you the flu—it can’t. Injected flu vaccines only contain dead virus that cannot infect you. Nasal spray vaccine is specially engineered to remove the parts of the virus that make people sick. Most people are protected from flu two weeks after getting the vaccine.

In addition to getting vaccinated, you should take everyday preventive steps such as staying away from sick people and washing your hands to reduce the spread of germs. Be considerate. If you are sick with flu, stay home from work or school to prevent spreading influenza to others.

Jim McVay, Dr.P.A., is director of the Bureau of Health Promotion and Chronic Disease of the Alabama Department of Public Health.