Two new strains of the flu virus will soon be spreading via cough, sneeze, or sniffle near you. And while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) expect flu season to kick off in October and last as late as May, there’s good news: thanks to this year’s new and improved flu shot, you’re not necessarily doomed to catch the bug.
This year’s vaccine contains the two new strains of flu virus, which were not used in previous vaccines. Meaning? It’s locked and loaded to give you the extra line of defense you need, with about a 70-80% rate of effectiveness, says pediatrician Rasik Shah, M.D., pediatric pulmonary consultant for Continuum Health Partners hospitals including Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, who is often among the first medical professionals to access new vaccinations. Which is a great thing, considering the flu can last up to two weeks, and inflicts fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headaches, and fatigue upon its victims.
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The CDC recommends everyone over the age of 6 months receive an annual vaccination, but fewer than 36% of 18- to 49-year-old Americans were vaccinated last year. And while having a needle stuck in your arm or a mist puffed up your nose may be far from pleasurable, getting the flu vaccine isn’t only about protecting yourself. With new strains of the virus in the picture, Shah says it’s even more vital to suck it up and get the vaccine to avoid infecting those around you. Still not feeling it? Here, we debunk the most common excuses for refusing the flu vaccination. EXCUSE: Been there, done that. I got it last year. Verdict: Irrelevant—you need another one. The vaccine is only good for a year because it’s customized for that year’s flu season—and even when the same viruses are used in consecutive years, the antibodies that the vaccine created in your body last year won’t likely last to protect you for an extra season. This year’s vaccine debuts two newbies: the A/Victoria/361/2011(H3N2)-like virus and the B/Wisconsin/1/2010-like virus. So even if the antibodies from last year’s vaccine do remain in your body, you still won’t be completely protected. EXCUSE: Yeah…I don’t do needles. Verdict: There’s another way. No problemo. There are two kinds of vaccinations available: The flu shot (ouch, we know) and the nasal-spray flu vaccination. According to the CDC, either vaccine’s effectiveness depends your age, health, and the similarity between the viruses in the vaccination and those you’re exposed to. However, clinical studies found the nasal spray reduced the chance of influenza illness by a not-too-shabby 92%.
EXCUSE: The flu shot is going to give me the flu. Verdict: Patently false. The flu shot doesn’t give people the flu. It can’t because it uses a killed virus, not a live one. Shah says the misconception comes from people who finally decide to get the vaccine once they’re already slightly sick. Plus, it takes about two weeks to work, so it won’t help you if you already have the flu. It’s also possible to catch a strain of the flu virus that’s absent from the vaccination and get sick from that even after being immunized.
On the other hand, the nasal spray version of the flu vaccine is made with a live (but weakened) virus and, in very rare cases, can cause the flu. (For that reason, it’s not for everyone: it’s approved only for healthy, non-pregnant people between the ages of 2 and 49.) EXCUSE: Eh, it’s not worth the side effects. Verdict: They’re not as common as you think. Very few people experience severe reactions to the flu vaccines, but there are some side effects. After receiving the shot, you may experience soreness, redness, or swelling at the injection site, or a slight fever and body aches. Side effects of the nasal spray may include a runny nose, headache, sore throat, or cough in adults. Regardless of these symptoms, most people are better off getting the flu vaccine than avoiding it.
EXCUSE: Forget it, I’m already sick. Verdict: How sick? Unless you’re suffering from a fever, you can still get the shot. Otherwise, wait until you’re better.
EXCUSE: I don’t need it, I have the immune system of an ox. Verdict: Get it anyway. Everyone should get the flu vaccination unless you’ve had a bad reaction to past vaccines or are severely allergic to eggs. (The vaccine is grown using eggs and while most of the egg is excluded from the final product, it may contain trace amounts.) Even if you typically get a mild reaction to eggs, like a stomachache, you should still get the vaccine, says Shah, but talk to your doctor if you suffer from anything more severe.
EXCUSE: It’s too late. Verdict: Not the case! According to Dr. Shah, it’s only too late to get the vaccine once it’s summer (the flu doesn’t like warm weather) and we’re not there yet. Unless you’re already sick with a fever, the best time to get vaccinated is now.
The bottom line: The best way to prevent the flu is by getting the vaccine. If that isn’t possible, the second best defense is hand-washing with soap and water, using alcohol-based hand sanitizers, or avoiding sick people like, well, the plague.
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Narins