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Influenza Vaccine 101

Learn about the influenza vaccine and how you can prevent the flu.

I often hear people say they don’t want the flu vaccine because they never get sick, or that the vaccine gave them the flu. Here is some information that I hope will convince you otherwise.

What is Influenza? Influenza is a serious viral respiratory illness that leads to the death of an average of 25,000 to 36,000 people in the United States annually.

Although most fatalities are in people over 65 years old, young children and people with certain conditions such as asthma, heart disease, lung disease, and weakened immune systems are also at greater risk for dying from influenza. Healthy people who contract the flu may recover without difficulty, but they may pass the illness onto those who are vulnerable to complications from influenza.

A person is contagious beginning a day before symptoms start, and so may pass on the illness without knowing it. Additionally, the contagiousness lasts for up to 7 days after feeling ill, so those people with more mild symptoms can continue the spread of the disease.

What are vaccinations? Vaccinations are a way of encouraging a body to create antibodies (proteins made by the immune system) which can help fight against an illness. This is done by placing bacteria or virus, or a portion of the bacteria or virus into the body.

Why do you need to get the influenza vaccine every year?  Influenza viruses mutate frequently, creating new strains which circulate throughout the world. Having immunity (protection) against one strain does not give immunity against another strain of virus. Therefore the vaccine usually changes yearly to keep up with the changes in the circulating strains.

What strains are in the influenza vaccine? Influenza viruses are divided and named. There are two major groups, A and B. The A group is divided into subgroups H and N with associated numbers. Both groups are further subdivided, usually given names and years for where and when they were first isolated.

For decades the influenza vaccine has been made of 3 strains of influenza: an A(H1N1), an A(H3N2) and one B strain (although the FDA just recently approved a quadrivalent vaccine which includes 2 strains of B as well as the 2 strains of A. This vaccine is not yet available.) This year’s trivalent vaccine has the same H1N1 virus as in the vaccine given the past 2 years, and new strains of H3N2 and B viruses.

What vaccine choices are there? There are several vaccines available at this time, both dead and alive.
TIV: a trivalent inactivated influenza vaccine – a killed (dead) virus vaccine with 3 options available
1. Regular Injectable -  injected into the muscle; it is available for anyone over 6 months of age;
2. High Dose -  contains 4 times the dose of viral particles as the regular vaccine which improves the antibody response; it is injected into the muscle and is available for those over 65 years of age;
3. Intradermal -  Contains a lower dose of viral particles than the regular vaccine but still gives a similar antibody response as regular; it is injected into the skin and is available for those 18-64 years of age;

What are the reactions to the injectable vaccines? Most people have no reactions to the influenza vaccines, although some can experience pain, redness and swelling at the injection site, and headache, muscle aches, fever and malaise. More people experience symptoms with the high dose vaccine, fewer with the intradermal vaccine. The reaction can be attributed to the body’s immune response to the injection, which means your immune system is working! It is not an allergic reaction, nor the flu. The vaccines do NOT give you the flu. The virus is dead! 
LAIV: a live attenuated influenza vaccine – meaning it has live influenza viruses that have been weakened so that they can only live in the cooler temperatures of the nose, and cannot live in the warmer temperatures of the chest/lungs. This vaccine is approved for healthy people ages 2-49 and is given as a nasal spray. What is the reaction to the intranasal vaccine? It does not cause significant illness, although it may give mild cold symptoms.
How safe is the vaccine? The influenza vaccines have been around for many decades. They are monitored like all vaccines, before, during, and after administration.  True allergic reactions are rare and treatable. There has been no change in adverse events over the past 15 years.
How effective is the vaccine? That depends upon the season and the person. In the 2010-2011 season, the efficacy across all age groups was approximately 60%. Some years in some age groups it appears to be 90% effective in preventing the flu. It does NOT protect against the myriad of other respiratory viruses which can also cause influenza-like illness, only the 3 influenza viruses in the vaccine. Immunity  against influenza is at a protective level starting about 2 weeks after the vaccination is given.
Where can I get the vaccine? There are multiple places you can get the vaccine: your family doctor, pharmacies, clinics, hospitals. I recommend you see your family physician who can make sure you are up to date on all of your vaccinations and health issues. Please notify your family doctor if you choose to get your influenza vaccine outside of your doctor’s office so that it is documented on your medical record. 
REMEMBER: The vaccine cannot give you the flu, and it can protect you and your family from the flu. So what are you waiting for? Take care of yourself. Do it for your loved ones. THE FLU ENDS WITH U!

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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