The new news about the upcoming 2011-12 flu season is … there is no new news. Experts have determined that the same three strains of flu will be circulating this season as last, and manufacturers have already delivered a vaccine – exactly the same vaccine in use last season – well ahead of schedule.
But that doesn’t mean those who got a shot last year can skip it this season, warns John Martin, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at the Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center. The seasonal vaccine, he says, only protects for a matter of months. So get your flu shot, and get it now.
“There’s no real too-early time to get the vaccine,” says the father of two, who plans to get his shot this week. It takes about three weeks for your immunity to ramp up once you’re vaccinated, and during that time you are still vulnerable to the flu. Since the annual onslaught of influenza is no respecter of calendars (we could always have an early season), it doesn’t pay to wait.
Martin gets vaccinated at work, this year “as soon as they bring the trolley around,” but your doctor’s office, local walk-in clinic or drugstore are also fine places to get your shot. “It should be the same everywhere you go,” he says.
Even if you think you’ve had the flu – and only a test performed by your doctor can tell you for sure – you should still get a flu shot for a couple of reasons. First, your illness might have been a cold or some other type of infection. “Anything can look like the flu,” Martin says. Second, there are several strains of the flu, and having one won’t make you immune to the others.
People who have life-threatening allergy to eggs, have had severe vaccine reactions in the past, or have had a rare condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome should talk with their doctor before being vaccinated, but everyone else, Martin says, should just get out and get it done.
Side-effects of the vaccine tend to begin within a of couple hours, are usually very mild, and last about a day. The most common are low-grade fever, body aches and localized muscle pain around the injection area, all treatable with Tylenol and some rest. (If you develop severe respiratory problems or high fever, see your doctor.)
If you did well with last year’s vaccine, you should do fine this year as well. And if you didn’t get your shot last year? “Don’t be surprised if you feel a little bit tired the day after the shot,” Martin says. “It doesn’t mean that the flu shot is giving you the flu. It’s just your immune system reacting to the vaccine itself.”
Taking normal precautions like washing your hands often and using hand sanitizer are great ways to prevent many kinds of illness, but Martin reminds everyone that the flu vaccine is the best way to protect against influenza, and that it’s safe. “The flu is not just a cold,” he says. “The flu is a very serious illness. And even in 2011 it still kills people.”