Roll up those sleeves: We still need flu shots
Millions more Americans have had the flu than have contracted the coronavirus. And if you've ever had the flu, you know how brutal it can be.
Fever. Aches. Vomiting. Frequent trips to the toilet. And you just can't seem to move off the couch.
Because of almost universal masking, distancing and hand-washing during the 2020-2021 flu season, there were remarkably few cases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there were only about 2,000 flu cases nationwide between Sept. 27, 2020, and April 24, 2021. Compare that to the 2019-2020 season, when the agency estimated 38 million people were sick with the flu.
Until you get it, you may not think of the flu as serious. The fact is it can be particularly dangerous for the elderly and the very young. During the 2018-2019 flu season, out of 35.5 million cases, there were 34,000 deaths. That may not seem like a lot -- until it's someone you love. You'll be doing your loved ones -- and yourself -- a favor by getting the flu vaccine this year.
Types of vaccines
The Food and Drug Administration has authorized several different vaccines for the four most prevalent strains of flu virus it expects this year. The more common egg-based influenza vaccine uses chicken eggs in the production process and requires an egg-grown virus. (That's why your provider asks if you're allergic to eggs before you receive the shot.)
There are also egg-free cell and recombinant vaccines. Cell-based vaccines are derived from antigens harvested from animal cells that have been infected with the virus. The antigens are purified and manufactured into vaccines. The recombinant vaccine combines antigen DNA with harmless bacteria that can enter your cells. Your body quickly responds with antigens of its own.
Cell and recombinant vaccines are authorized only for those 18 and older. They've been in use for nearly 10 years, and you can find more details about their safety record at www.cdc.gov/flu. If you have a preference for which vaccine to receive, be sure to ask your health care provider.
Flu and COVID-19
Both the flu virus and the coronavirus cause similar symptoms, particularly respiratory issues. They can't be distinguished without testing, and it is possible to have flu and COVID at the same time.
Flu typically comes on quickly after exposure to the virus, while the coronavirus may take several days to incubate. This may mean someone exposed to COVID is contagious without realizing it. COVID makes people sicker longer than flu and often leads to serious long-term illnesses.
If you've had the flu, you are not protected from COVID, and vice versa. The FDA has just recommended COVID boosters for most Americans about eight months after their initial immunization. Getting a COVID booster shouldn't stop you from also getting a flu shot, but if you have COVID, wait until it clears up before getting a flu shot.
It's particularly important for us to protect ourselves against flu this year because the U.S. health care system is again straining under the burden of the coronavirus Delta variant. The more we avoid serious flu symptoms, the more medical resources we preserve for those with COVID.
When to get your shot
About 200 million doses of flu vaccine are expected to be delivered, so we shouldn't experience a shortage as we have in some years. Your provider may have vaccines available now.
Because the flu vaccine takes about two weeks to be effective, September is not too early for your flu shot. It will protect you in time for peak flu season, which starts in October. But, to be on the safe side, get your flu shot as soon as it's offered to you. The protection typically lasts up to six months.
If you miss that window, it's not too late! Flu hangs around well into the spring, so even if you don't get a shot until December or January, that's better than not getting one at all.
Finally, who should get a flu shot? Everyone who's over the age of 6 months! While we may not have the non-flu season we did last year, we can minimize its impact on ourselves, our communities and our health care providers by taking this simple and effective step.
• Teri Dreher is a board-certified patient advocate. A critical care nurse for 30+ years, she is founder of NShore Patient Advocates (www.NorthShoreRN.com). She is offering a free, 30-minute phone consultation by calling (312) 788-2640 to make an appointment.