Don’t forget about the Flu (subtitle: GET YOUR FLU VACCINE!)

By: Joseph Mechak, MD

The Coronavirus has captured and held our attention over the past 9 months but it is vitally important not to overlook ‘the devil we know’… Influenza (the Flu).  The flu season is something we brace for every year. It poses a significant health risk to children. In fact, in most children, the risk of complication with the seasonal flu is actually higher than COVID-19 (CDC- Flu risk in children)!  Further, the flu alone stresses our hospital system. In the 2018-2019, a relatively mild flu season, there were about 30 million flu infections leading to 480,000 hospitalizations and 34,000 American deaths – including 480 children (CDC – Flu burden). Paired with the coronavirus, a ‘twin-demic’ will stress the system to critical levels.
One important difference between COVID -19 and the flu is that we already have a flu vaccine that is readily available and provides significant protection against the flu.  We urge you and your family to get your flu vaccine ASAP to protect yourself and help limit the burden on the already stressed healthcare system.  

Below are some FAQs and some excerpts from our 2019 blog about the flu vaccine. 
How can I tell the difference between COVID-19 and the Flu.
It will be difficult.  There is significant overlap in symptoms between COVID-19 and the flu.  The CDC has published a great summary of similarities and differences – CDC – COVID-19 vs Flu.  Testing will be very important to distinguish between the two infections.  Don’t forget, we offer both Flu and COVID-19 testing in our office.

Does the flu vaccine work?
Yes. The flu vaccine has been proven to protect you from the flu.  In the 2018-2019 season an estimated 4.4 million infections were prevented from flu vaccines.  Further, the flu vaccine can decrease disease severity and prevent complications.  Recent studies in children have shown that the flu vaccine reduced a child’s risk of ICU admission by 74%, reduced risk of hospitalization by 41%, and reduced risk of an ED visit by 50%. CDC – Flu vaccine benefits.

How does the flu vaccine work?
A vaccine is a degraded or weakened virus that is injected/sprayed into your child’s body. Their body recognizes these components as foreign, mounts an attack, and makes antibodies against them.  These pre-made antibodies are then able to swiftly respond to an exposure to the real flu virus. This will hopefully prevent your child from being infected, or will at least shorten the duration of symptoms, reduce the risk of complications, and lead to a milder course of illness.

Why do I need a flu vaccine every year?
The flu is tricky.  There are many different strains or versions of the flu.  They are different enough from each other that antibodies against one strain do not work against other strains.  Active flu strains change from year to year, so we need a new vaccine every year to protect against the expected active strains. The CDC and vaccine producers use historical trends, data from the southern hemisphere, and other sources to predict which strains will be active in a given year.  They then make vaccines based on these highly educated predictions.  

Who can get the flu vaccine?
The flu shot is approved for all children 6 months of age and older. Children under 8 years old who are getting the flu vaccine for the first time need 2 doses, 1 month apart.  All other children need just 1 dose per year.  If your child is too young for the vaccine, vaccinating everyone around them is the best way to protect them from the flu!

When should I get the flu vaccine?
Now! We have already seen isolated cases of the flu in our office this season. It takes 2-3 weeks to mount a full immune response to the vaccine.  We wanted to make sure your child’s immune system is primed up for whenever the flu decides to come.

Can the flu vaccine cause the flu?
No. The flu vaccine does not give you the flu.  The flu vaccine may, however, give you ‘flu-like symptoms.’  The flu vaccine revs up your immune system to make the flu antibodies.  This immune response can cause some malaise (the feel bads), headache, and abdominal pain.  Other side effects include injection site soreness and redness. All of these side effects are actually quite infrequent, and should be short-lived

In summary… Schedule your flu vaccine today!

Other helpful resources: – The Flu – Prepare for Flu Season – A guide to flu for children with chronic health conditions – Flu guide for children
CDC – Flu tracker
CDC – Protect your health this flu season
CDC – Flu FAQ and vaccine recommendations