Don't put off flu shot, there's plenty for all, CDC says
Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends flu shots for everyone over 6 months old.
Yet relatively few get them. Last year, only 43% of Americans got a flu shot, and that was a record year. In developed countries, flu kills more people than any other vaccine-preventable disease, says pediatrician Jon Abramson of Wake Forest University School of Medicine.
In the United States, flu season runs from October to May, with most cases occurring between late December and early March.
Signs and Symptoms of the flu
The flu is often confused with the common cold, but flu symptoms usually are more severe than the typical sneezing and stuffiness of a cold.
Symptoms, which usually begin about 2 days after exposure to the virus, can include:
- muscle aches
- loss of appetite
- sore throat
- runny nose
- nausea or vomiting
- ear pain
After 5 days, fever and other symptoms have usually disappeared, but a cough and weakness may continue.
All symptoms are usually gone within a week or two. However, it's important to treat the flu seriously because it can lead to pneumonia and other life-threatening complications, particularly in infants, senior citizens, and people with long-term health problems.
Experts talk about some of the most common myths about the flu and the flu shot
Myth 1: The flu is just a bad cold.
A cold is an annoyance. The flu kills up to 49,000 people a year and hospitalizes 200,000, the CDC says. Last year, 114 children died. Flu symptoms tend to appear suddenly, unlike a cold. People who get H1N1 (swine flu) are often laid up for a week with fever, body aches, sore throat, fatigue, headaches and a runny or congested nose, says the CDC.
Myth 2: The flu shot causes the flu.
About 35% of consumers think the flu vaccine can cause flu, CVS found. But that's impossible, CDC says, because the viruses in the flu shot are dead. Its most common side effect is a sore arm. Mist nasal spray contains weakened viruses, so they don't cause severe symptoms, either. Side effects in kids can include a runny nose, wheezing and headache.
Myth 3: New "combined" shots are riskier than older ones.
This year's shot, which protects against both H1N1 and seasonal flu, was made the same way as every other flu shot, says Randy Bergen of Kaiser Permanente in Walnut Creek, Calif. Every year, vaccine makers include viral strains that are most likely to cause illness. Typically, these include two influenza A strains — an H1N1 and an H3N2 — and a strain of influenza B, Abramson says.
Myth 4: Only sickly people need a flu shot.
Half of consumers think flu shots are only for kids or sick people, CVS found. Actually, the most vulnerable members of society, such as newborns or those with weak immune systems, often can't get flu shots. The only way to protect them is to vaccinate everyone around them, keeping flu viruses out of circulation, Bergen says. Because babies can't be vaccinated until they're 6 months old, they depend on vaccinated friends and family members to create a "cocoon" of protection , Bergen says.
Myth 5: Flu shots contain toxic chemicals such as mercury.
About 14% of those surveyed said flu shots were dangerous. Concerns about mercury have revolved around a preservative called thimerosal, once commonly used in vaccines but mostly phased out since 2001 . Today, no thimerosal is added to FluMist nasal spray or to flu shots from single-dose containers, says Paul Offit, infectious-disease expert at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Companies add thimerosal to only flu vaccine stored in multi-dose vials, to prevent fungus or other potentially dangerous germs, Bergen says. There's no evidence that the low levels of thimerosal in shots cause any harm, says Offit. Thimerosal contains ethyl mercury, not methyl mercury, the type that can cause brain damage, he says. The low levels of ethyl mercury found in multi-dose flu shots have never been shown to cause harm, Offt says. There's also no data to prove that thimerosal causes autism, either, Offit adds. In fact, seven studies now refute that idea. Offit notes that flu shots don't use aluminum, which is used in other vaccines as an "adjuvant" to stimulate a stronger immune response.