Each year anywhere from five to twenty percent of Americans contracts the flu virus. About 226,000 require hospitalization; about 36,000 people die from complications of the flu. These can include bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections, dehydration, and worsening of chronic medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma, or diabetes. It helps to be generally healthy and relatively young, but a yearly vaccination against the flu is a good first-line defense.
Typically, flu season begins in November, peaks in January or February and extends through the next spring; cases have been reported in New York as late as May. But, as it takes about two weeks for the vaccine to become effective after it is administered, the CDC recommends getting it early. The protection lasts throughout the flu season.
It's impossible to predict which strains of flu virus will cause disease in a given season, the viruses change season to season, even within the course of a single season. Researchers have to pick the strains to include the virus many months in advance in order to produce and deliver the vaccine on time. Consequently, there is often an imperfect match between what's in the vaccine and what's circulating out there. However, the CDC points out that even lacking an optimal match, the antibodies your body makes in response to the vaccine will protect you against different, but related strains of the virus. Even if the vaccine does not prevent you from getting the flu - which can be the case even if the match is perfect - if you do contract the virus, your symptoms are likely to be less severe if you've had the vaccination.
Who should not get the flu vaccine?
According to the Medical Society of the State of New York (MSSNY), the reasons not to get a flu vaccination are few and apply to only a few people. Those who should not receive the flu vaccine are: babies younger than six months, people who are allergic to eggs or any other components of the vaccine or have had an allergic reaction to flu vaccine in the past; people who developed Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) within six weeks of getting a flu vaccine before; anyone who is sick with a fever - wait until symptoms subside. It's usually safe for a person with only a mild illness, such as a cold, to be vaccinated.
All flu vaccines are made from three viruses that are either killed (inactivated) or weakened (attenuated). Some people should not be vaccinated with FluMist, which is sprayed into the nostrils, because it is a live attenuated intravenous vaccine (LAIV) made from weakened viruses. So far, FluMist is only approved for healthy people between the ages of two and 50. These people should still be vaccinated with one of the other vaccines, however, which are all trivalent inactivated influenza vaccines (TIV) made from killed viruses and injected into a muscle. People can not get the flu from the TIV flu shot.
Pneumococcal pneumonia, a bacterial disease, is characterized by high fever, cough, and shortness of breath. The bacteria can also cause bacteremia (fever and feeling generally poorly), and meningitis, the symptoms of which are fever, headache, thinking slowly or not clearly. The most serious complication of infection is death; in fact, one of the most common causes of death in America is this vaccine-preventable disease. Pneumococcal vaccine is effective at preventing severe disease, hospitalization, and death. However it is not guaranteed to prevent all symptoms in all people.
Those who should get the pneumococcal vaccine are: people 65 years old or older; those with a serious long-term condition such as heart disease, sickle cell disease, alcoholism, leaks of cerebrospinal fluid, lung disease (not including asthma), diabetes, or liver cirrhosis; those whose resistance to infection is lowered due to Hodgkin's disease; multiple myeloma; cancer treatment with x-rays or drugs; treatment with long-term steroids; bone marrow or organ transplant; kidney failure; HIV/AIDS; lymphoma, leukemia, or other cancers; nephrotic syndrome; damaged spleen or no spleen.
Your child should get the pneumonia vaccine if: he/she is less than two years old, is at least two years old but less than five years old and has a serious long-term health problem such as heart disease, sickle cell disease, leaks of cerebrospinal fluid, lung disease (not including asthma), diabetes, or liver disease; he/she is at least two years old but less than five years old and his/her resistance to infection is lowered due to Hodgkin's disease; cancer treatment with x-rays or drugs; treatment with long-term steroids; bone marrow or organ transplant; kidney failure; HIV/AIDS; lymphoma, leukemia, or other cancers; nephrotic syndrome; damaged spleen or no spleen.
Additional information sources
If you have any questions regarding whether or not you should get either of these vaccines, check with your doctor. You might need a check up prior to being vaccinated. For additional information visit the websites of the New York State Department of Health (www.health.state.ny.us/diseases/communicable/influenza/seasonal/) and the CDC (www.cdc.gov/flu/).++