Flu Shot, or Not?

Arm yourself with reliable resources and information to protect yourself and your family during the flu season.

By Chandni Jhunjhunwala

You’ve likely heard the news: A 50 percent slash in vaccine supplies has already stirred up concerns among doctors and patients across the nation — and flu season has only just arrived. So it’s more important than ever that you arm yourself with reliable resources and information to protect yourself and your family.

Flu shots are the best prevention for most of us, although, despite popular belief, they’re not 100 percent foolproof. But the flu shot is not for everyone. Those suffering from chronic diseases, such as asthma and diabetes, as well as certain allergies and other health conditions, may have serious complications from the vaccination. As with all medical decisions, you should consult with your own physician.

Due to the current shortage, healthcare authorities are urging groups at the highest risk (and those in close contact with them) to get vaccinated. "It’s important to remember that the flu is serious — it kills 35,000 people a year. Talk to your doctor to both prevent and treat the flu," says Norman H. Edelman, consultant for scientific affairs to the American Lung Association. If you’re a healthy adult, you might want to skip the shot this year to preserve the vaccine for those who need it most.

"People are being turned away from clinics if they don’t fit into high-risk groups," says Ilana Tabak, media relations associate at the American Lung Association. "The federal government has issued guidelines for most clinics, and even private doctors have been asked to reserve their shots. We’re encouraging people to use our flu shot finder, but we’re also saying you need to contact clinics before you go."

Your best bet might be to wait until November and take advantage of leftover supplies, if any. Meanwhile, ask your doctor for FluMist, a nasal spray flu vaccine, which was approved by the FDA last year. "It has been approved for people in low-risk categories, but it could work for people in high-risk groups as well. The exception is people with lung diseases, as it might precipitate an asthma attack," says Edelman. Keep it away from younger children as well — it is only recommended for healthy people from 5 to 49 years. Other antiviral drugs, amantadine (Symmetrel) rimantadine (Flumadine) and oseltamivir (Tamiflu) are about 70 to 90 percent effective in fighting the flu. Again, check with your doctor to see what’s right for you.

As usual, common sense and solid health habits are essential. "You want to wash your hands often, you want to pay attention to symptoms, and basically if you feel like you’re getting sick, we encourage you to stay home," says Tabak. The flu is quite easy to pass around. "All you need to do is cough and it’s in the air," she says. Using hand sanitizers, avoiding crowds and a recent study found that even exercising are good ways to decrease the likelihood of getting sick.

The flu is a respiratory infection, with symptoms that are deceptively similar to those of a cold: fever, exhaustion, body aches, sore throats, dry cough and itchy eyes and nausea. If these symptoms come on suddenly and are accompanied by an acute fever and aches, then you probably have the flu. Contact your doctor immediately, as treatment is most effective within the first two days of your illness.

High-risk groups should be especially proactive in getting medical treatment, as they can develop fatal complications like pneumonia, dehydration and aggravation of medical conditions like asthma, heart failure or diabetes. Most of us healthier folks, however, will "have to deal with a fever, sore throat, body aches," says Tabak, but are likely to be back on our feet — and work — in about one week.

From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
Who Should Get Vaccinated?
1. All children ages 6 to 23 months

2. Adults ages 65 years and older

3. Out-of-home caregivers and those residing with children under 6 months old

4. Persons ages 2 to 64 years with underlying chronic medical conditions, such as asthma and diabetes

5. All women who will (or may) be pregnant during the influenza season

6. Children ages 6 months to 18 years on chronic aspirin therapy

7. Healthcare workers involved in direct patient care

8. Residents of nursing homes and long-term-care facilities

Who Should Not Be Vaccinated?
1. Children less than 6 months of age

2. People who have a severe egg allergy

3. People who have had a severe reaction to an influenza vaccination in the past

4. People who have developed Guillain-BarreÁ syndrome (GBS) within 6 weeks of getting an influenza vaccine

5. People who are currently sick with a fever. (These people can get vaccinated once their symptoms have been alleviated.)