MAYWOOD, Ill. -- With the regular seasonal flu season fast approaching, now is the right time to get vaccinated before the risk of infection begins to rise dramatically.
"The time is now to get a flu shot," said Dr. Michael Koller, associate professor, Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine in Maywood, Ill. "There is no shortage of seasonal flu vaccine this year and the vaccine has shipped early this year. Loyola received half of its seasonal flu shot supply by the first of September and we expect complete delivery by early October."
The flu (or influenza) is a highly contagious viral infection that attacks the respiratory system. Doctors used to advise getting a flu shot only in October and November. Now doctors vaccinate through February because it takes about two weeks to develop an antibody response after the flu shot. For the last 30 years in the United States, February has been the peak month for illness, though infections can occur through April.
"Flu is primarily spread by respiratory droplets," Koller said. "When somebody with influenza coughs or sneezes, out shoots this spray of flu virus that can infect anyone nearby. In addition to covering your mouth when you cough and covering your nose when you sneeze, it’s really important to wash your hands to decrease the spread of the flu."
Each year in the U.S. between f5 to 20 percent of the population contracts the flu. Symptoms include an abrupt onset of fever, chills, headaches, exhaustion, aching muscles and a constant, unproductive cough, Koller said.
Most people recover from the flu in a few days, although they may experience some fatigue for several weeks after, Koller said. However, for some people flu is a much more serious illness that requires hospitalization. In extreme cases, the flu can lead to pneumonia or death. About 36,000 Americans die and 200,000 are hospitalized from the flu each year.
"Once you have the flu, you never forget it," Koller said. "Usually those are the people you don’t have to convince to get a flu shot because they never want to get it again."
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends universal vaccination for all children 6 months up to 19. The CDC also recommends universal vaccinations for pregnant women, people age 50 and older and anyone with a chronic illness such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease.
"People who have cancer, people who are immunosuppressed or people who are infected with HIV (the virus that causes AIDS), should also get a flu shot," Koller said.
Health-care workers and those caring for people in an at-risk group should also be vaccinated, Koller said, since a person can be infected and contagious for a short period of time before coming down with the classic symptoms of the flu.
For parents of young children who are worried about vaccines containing thimerosal, a preservative that contains mercury, Koller said that some of the flu shots being distributed in the Chicago area no longer contain any thimerosal.
"The product that Loyola has doesn’t have any thimerosal at all," Koller said.
Koller said, however, that any child under the age 9 who is getting a flu shot for the first time will need a second or "booster" shot four weeks later. Parents often are unaware that their young child may need a second flu shot in the first year of vaccination.
Koller said that it’s impossible to get the flu from getting a flu shot, which is a common misperception. However, he added that some will experience some side effects.
"Some people get soreness or pain at the site of the injection. A smaller number of people will feel achy and tired," Koller said. "But all of those side effects are usually gone after two days. If it’s the first year that you’ve gotten the flu shot, you’re more likely to get the side effects. In the subsequent years, you’re much less likely to get them."
Bottom line, influenza is a serious illness that can be prevented by vaccination. Since there is no shortage of vaccine, anyone who wants to decrease their risk of contracting the flu this year should get a flu shot now.
To interview Koller or any other Loyola experts in influenza, flu in children or infants, flu in pregnant women, flu testing or animal-to-human disease transmission, call Perry Drake in media relations, (708) 216-7940. Cell: (708) 441-7736.