Based on the media and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports, influenza -- the flu -- is making its way across the U.S. By now, I hope many of you have already received the flu vaccine (flu shot) and encouraged family, friends and coworkers to do the same. For those of you who have procrastinated, it is not too late. For those of you who are questioning the importance of getting a flu shot, I hope you read this blog and rethink your decision.
First, I want to share a bit of information about the flu and why receiving the vaccine is so important. Apologies if this is a bit much … as you can see I am a bit passionate about this topic and strongly believe in any efforts to prevent getting sick from the flu.
Flu is spread by coughing, sneezing and close contact. For those of you in colder climates, spending more time indoors and in contained spaces increases the risk that you will be exposed to the flu. For those of you enjoying the warmth and sunshine … you are still at risk.
Flu season typically runs from October through March, but that varies from year to year. The CDC website has a map of the U.S. that depicts the prevalence of flu across the country if you want to know the status of your area. Ideally, you want to receive the flu shot early in the season so your body's immune system can fully respond, which takes about two weeks. Your best method of defense is to get the vaccine -- the earlier the better, before the flu spreads to your area.
The flu shot is the best way to protect yourself against getting the flu (individuals with cystic fibrosis should only receive the injectable form of the vaccine). In addition to feeling miserable, missing school or work and social activities, each year thousands of people in the U.S. die from flu complications and many more are hospitalized. Getting the flu is more dangerous for some people than others. For individuals with CF, getting the flu can result in an exacerbation. Some of these exacerbations can be really severe, with the potential for irreversible loss of lung function and often, a slower recovery from the flu.
In addition to getting your flu shot, encourage others around you to get theirs -- for their own protection and yours. The more people in your circle who have received the flu shot, the better the chances of creating what is called “herd immunity” in your community. When a large percentage of people get vaccinated, it makes it more difficult for the illness to spread, offering some protection for most people, even those who may not have received the flu shot. Also, viruses like the flu can adapt and cause more severe disease over time, but they need a human host to do that.
By getting as many people vaccinated, we're actually robbing the virus of the potential to change its properties.
Although the vaccine is your best protection, it's not a guarantee that you won't get the flu. For example, if you are exposed to the flu shortly before getting vaccinated or during the time that it takes your body to gain protection after getting vaccinated, you may get the flu. There are multiple “strains” of the flu virus every year. Some are more common than others. Scientists develop vaccines that target the three or four viruses most likely to occur in the upcoming season, but a strain that was not targeted in the vaccine could infect you. Also, everyone may not have the same immune response to the vaccine. The good news is that even if the strain is not an exact match to the vaccine or you don't have the “full immune” response, if you catch the flu, it is more likely to be a milder illness if you are vaccinated.
Whether you received the vaccine or not, if you think you may have the flu, contact your health care provider as soon as possible. Antiviral drugs, such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu®), are prescription drugs that can be used to treat the flu. Prompt treatment (ideally within 24 hours) can prevent serious flu complications and mean the difference between having a milder illness versus a serious one that could result in a hospitalization. Some CF care centers provide a prescription for an antiviral drug to have on hand in case you get the flu.
If you have concerns about receiving the vaccine, talk to your CF care team or check the CDC website, which has information about the value, rationale and myths about the flu.
Hopefully, you have learned some interesting information about the flu virus and vaccine, and will get your flu shot if you haven't already.