Flu Shot 2018 FAQ: When, why, and do you really need it?

October 16, 2018

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Flu season generally starts in October, and every year the flu accounts for countless trips to the doctor, the ER, and the hospital. We answer your most frequently asked questions about the flu vaccine.

How important is it to get a flu shot?

Influenza, or the flu, is a highly contagious and potentially serious respiratory disease that typically circulates every winter and spring. According to the CDC, hundreds of thousands of people are hospitalized each year, and tens of thousands of people die annually from flu-related illnesses — but the flu vaccine dramatically decreases the risks of hospitalization and complications.

We highly recommend that everyone eligible gets a flu shot at the start of every flu season, as it is truly the most effective way to protect yourself against the flu. It is important to get a flu vaccination not only to prevent you from getting sick with the flu and or one of the millions of other flu-related illnesses, but also to protect the people around you that are at higher risk for influenza, including children, older adults, and those with chronic health conditions.

The flu virus itself can change from year to year, and the vaccines are created each year to protect against that season's predominant viruses. It's important to understand that a vaccination from last year, even one that protected against the same viruses as the current year, will not protect you for the coming flu season because your immunity from vaccination declines over time.

Download the free Circle by Swedish app to your smartphone for parenting resources including seasonal flu shot reminders and more.

How effective is the flu vaccine?

In order to measure the effectiveness of each year's flu vaccine, the CDC conducts an annual study to measure the number of laboratory-confirmed flu instances that result in a doctor visit or hospitalization. This percentage figure is known as the Vaccine Effectiveness (VE), representing the reduction in risk of illness from the flu vaccine.

The most recent findings indicate that within the general population, "when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to the flu vaccine," the vaccine can reduce a person's risk of becoming ill with the flu by up to 60 percent. 

Is there anyone that should NOT get a flu shot?

Most everyone over the age of six months is eligible for a flu vaccination of some kind, though it is important to understand whether you are at a higher risk for illness, or require a specific flu vaccine based on your age, health, and allergy history.

Certain people should not receive a flu shot, including:
• Children younger than six months.
• People with severe allergies to any ingredients in the flu vaccine.

Others should talk to a medical professional before getting vaccinated, including:
• People with egg allergies.
• People that have ever had Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS).
• People that are already feeling ill.
Beyond that, the flu vaccine is safe and recommended for the rest of the population. And yes, the vaccine is perfectly safe during all stages of pregnancy!

Is it normal to get sick after the shot?

No, it is not normal to become ill after receiving a flu shot. Depending on the type of vaccine, it is made with either inactivated and non-infectious virus, or with no flu vaccine viruses at all, so you are not receiving an active virus. In fact, blind studies have concluded that there is no difference in reaction between those who have received the flu vaccine and those that received a salt-water shot.

It is, however, normal to see side effects at the injection site, such as soreness, redness, tenderness, or swelling lasting less than two days, and mild fevers or headaches may occur for one to two days following the vaccination.

What is the swine flu, and does it require a different type of shot?

Swine influenza, commonly referred to as the swine flu, is a variation of the flu resulting from viruses that are commonly circulated amongst pigs. Similar to human influenza, swine influenza is made up of many different strains, though the main swine virus in recent years has been H1N1.

Swine influenza viruses can, on rare occasions, spread from pigs to people upon contact. People that spend time around pigs and swine barns are naturally at a higher risk for contracting swine flu and are encouraged to contact a health care provider if they develop flu symptoms. Be sure to inform them of your higher risk and detail any recent exposure to pigs or swine barns.

The standard seasonal flu vaccine will not protect against the swine flu virus, but there are prescription antiviral options that can treat these viruses.

How do scientists know how to make a flu vaccine if the virus is different every year?

Each year, a new flu vaccine is created specifically to protect against the three or four influenza viruses that research has indicated as being the most likely to spread and infect that year. 

In order to select these viruses, the World Health Organization (WHO) holds a biannual meeting with its directors, essential regulatory laboratories, and representatives of key national laboratories to review the results of "surveillance, laboratory, and clinical studies, and the availability of vaccine viruses and make recommendations on the composition of the influenza vaccine."

What’s the status of developing a universal flu vaccine?

To develop a universal flu vaccine would require a global, collaborative effort between governments, scientists, philanthropists, and more. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) is focused on developing a universal flu vaccine that would provide long-lasting protection against a myriad of flu viruses as opposed to only a select few. The existence of a universal flu vaccine would mean the end of annual updates and vaccinations and could potentially even protect against newly emerging strains.

The NIAID has determined that in order to call a universal vaccine a success, it must be at least 75% effective, protect against Group I and Group II influenza A strains, have durable protection that lasts at least one year, and be suitable for all age groups.

What’s the historical flu impact in Washington?

Last flu season, 296 official influenza deaths were reported in Washington, the majority of which affected the older population and those with underlying health conditions. That flu season hit earlier and harder than average, peaking in mid-January as opposed to the previous year's late February/early March high season.

The updated flu vaccine for the upcoming season is already available at most pharmacies, clinics, and medical providers. Flu activity often picks up at the start of the school year, so now is the perfect time to vaccinate your children.

Learn more about how influenza impacts Washington State.

Do you still have questions about flu vaccines, or whether you should plan to get one this season? With Swedish Express Care on-demand services, you can get answers by visiting an online doctor from your device, calling for a doctor to visit you at home, or stopping by one of our conveniently located clinics.

Swedish chief of Pediatrics Dr. Elizabeth Meade answers frequently asked questions about the flu vaccine:

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.