Should You Get a Flu Vaccine?

Summer’s not over for a few more days, but flu season could start by next month. Have you asked your doctor to reserve a vaccine for you? Got plans to get one elsewhere?

Even without insurance, it only costs about $20. Here’s why it’s worth every penny….

Why

In the United States, 5 to 20 percent of the population catches the influenza virus each season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Considering that even a healthy person could miss a week or two of work (or school) due to the flu – as happened to me in my 20s – the negligible amount of time and money it takes to get vaccinated is a no-brainer investment.

If you’re in less-than-perfect health, it’s even more important: An average of 200,000 people are hospitalized and anywhere from 3,000 to 49,000 die from flu-related complications each year.

Unlike illnesses that are prevented by a one-time vaccine, the best way to prevent the flu is with an annual vaccine. The flu virus mutates, so the strains that go around one year aren’t necessarily around the next. That means the vaccine varies each year too. In fact, two of the three strains covered by this year’s vaccine, which the Food and Drug Administration released last month, weren’t covered by last year’s vaccine.

Who

The CDC – and many non-government health authorities – suggest that, with a few exceptions, everyone over 6 months of age get a flu vaccine.

Vaccination is especially important for people who are prone to infection or could become more ill than normal if infected. The CDC and National Institutes of Health thus urge you to get vaccinated if you…

  • have a weakened immune system (due to cancer or HIV/AIDS, for example)
  • have a chronic health problem, including diabetes, asthma, anemia, or heart, lung, kidney, or liver disease
  • are being treated with steroids
  • are pregnant or may become pregnant during flu season (which can last till May)
  • have contact with children under 6 months of age
  • are under age 5 (but older than 6 months)
  • are over age 50
  • are an American Indian or Alaska native
  • are morbidly obese (defined as having a body mass index of 40 or higher)
  • work in health care
  • live in a nursing home or assisted living facility

I think school-age children and teens should also be on that list – contagious illnesses can spread like wildfire at school. And if you live with anyone described above, vaccination is especially important so you don’t pass the flu to them or vice versa.

What

There are two basic types of flu vaccines: an “inactive” one administered by injection, and a “live” one that’s misted into your nose (like in the photo).

The former contains an inactive form of the flu virus, while the latter contains a live but weakened form. Neither causes the flu but occasionally cause side effects like soreness at the injection site or a mild fever or headache.

The doctor I used to work for preferred the live vaccine because it arguably provides a little better protection. But it also seemed to cause side effects for more patients than the inactive vaccine.

Whichever you pick, consult your doctor first, especially if you weren’t vaccinated in recent years. The live vaccine isn’t recommended for as many people. In fact, it’s not recommended for some of the populations for whom vaccination is especially important, like pregnant women.

You can also read the CDC’s handouts about the live and inactive versions and the live-vaccine questionnaire that a doctor would make you complete before getting the live vaccine.

When

The flu season starts as early as October, so now’s the time to get vaccinated – especially considering that you’re not fully protected against the flu until up to two weeks after getting vaccinated.

As for the exact day and time, I recommend late on a Friday. That way, if you have a side effect like a headache, you can go home afterward instead of having to work through it.

Where

Getting vaccinated is easier than ever. If you don’t have a personal doctor and don’t want to brave a clinic, check your pharmacy: National chains like CVS and Walgreens take walk-ins – and most insurances. (CVS even throws in a 20-percent-off shopping pass.) Many college health centers also vaccinate students.

Check out the Department of Health’s Vaccine Finder for your closest options.

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