Is the flu vaccine worth it?

Local doctors share key information

If you’re thinking that getting the flu shot this season is nothing but a pain in your arm, perhaps you might want to consider the alternative.

Sure, getting the flu vaccination may mean cramming a 30-minute visit to the doctor’s office or local health clinic into your already over-scheduled day — but fighting the flu can mean up to two weeks of battling a debilitating illness, and potentially spreading it to someone who is in no condition to fight it.

“What people don’t realize is how easy it is to spread the flu,” said Dori Thompson, MD a physician with Springboro Family Medicine. “And healthy people don’t think about the impact they could have on high-risk individuals if they were to spread the flu to them. There are a lot of people who think they’ll chance it and if they do get the flu they’ll just stay home for a couple of days. But remember you can transfer the flu to people before you even have symptoms and you don’t know who you will be coming in contact with — it could be someone with asthma or COPD.”

That was the tough reality faced by Tina Walker, a patient of Dr. Thompson, this past year when she chose not to get a flu shot and contracted the Influenza B virus as a result.

“I was so sick it was awful,” Walker said. “I ended up in my doctor’s office three different times and she finally told me I would just have to go home and go to bed and rest. I told her I would never go without a flu shot again.” However, worse than the two full weeks of missed work due to the excessive body aches, fever and fatigue was the idea that she could have potentially passed the virus on to her son.

Walker’s son Levi was diagnosed as a child with heredity spherocytosis — a rare blood disorder that cost Levi his spleen at age five and it has transformed the way the Walker family deals with sickness and handles germs.

“My son doesn’t have the ability to fight infection,” said Walker, who had been faithful to get her shot every year until this past one. “Without a spleen, if he runs a fever of 102 or higher, he has to be hospitalized.”

Thankfully, Levi had gotten his own flu vaccine last year and did not end up contracting the virus. Unfortunately, most individuals don’t view the flu as the Walker family does. For many, the shot is more of an inconvenience and not all that important, especially if they are in good health. That’s why Dr. Thompson stresses the importance of recognizing the flu vaccination’s greater good.

A report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) this past June, which used data collected from 2005 to 2011 — estimated that the vaccination prevented 13.6 million flu cases, 5.8 million medical visits and nearly 113,000 flu-related hospitalizations in the United States over the six-year period.

The 2012-13 flu season arrived early and was severe, leaving many who contracted the illness overcome by its symptoms. “I had people crying in my exam rooms because they felt so badly,” said Dr. Thompson. Still, doctors say the season was a good wake up call for those who have become complacent about the flu vaccination because of the preceding flu seasons that were much milder.

The impossibility of predicting the severity of an upcoming flu season is why Dr. Thompson advises patients to get their flu vaccination early, regardless of their health. Additionally, she urges those with high-risk health issues — such as heart disease, diabetes, COPD and asthma — to see their doctor during flu season if they begin to experience any flu-like symptoms. Those symptoms can include fever, cough, extreme body aches, high fever and fatigue. The quicker the flu is diagnosed, the better chance there is to treat it with antiviral medications.

Myths about the flu

Understanding the facts can save lives Nicholas Davis, MD, a physician with Centerville Family Medicine, clears up some common myths about the flu:

Myth: You can get the flu from the flu shot. “This is one of the biggest misconceptions out there,” Dr. Davis said. “You can not get the flu from the flu shot.” According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) the influenza viruses contained in a flu shot are inactivated, or killed, which means they cannot cause infection and batches of the flu vaccine are tested to make sure they are safe. While some individuals may experience a reaction to the flu vaccine such as a low grade fever and aches, if these occur, they usually begin soon after the shot, last only one to two days and are still considerably less severe than the symptoms caused by the actual virus.

Myth: The flu shot doesn’t work. How well the flu vaccine works can vary widely from season to season. According to the CDC, there are substantial benefits of the flu shot during flu seasons when the vaccine is accurately matched with the viruses that are infecting individuals.

Myth: The flu is annoying, but harmless. “Every year, people die from complications from the flu,” Dr. Davis said. “Normally, it will only be a serious threat to the elderly and the very young, but there are those exceptions.” When the 2012-13 flu season had hit its peak, the CDC reported more than 8.3 percent of all deaths nationwide were due to the flu — a statistic that officially classified the season as an epidemic. About 90 percent of those deaths were of adults age 65 or older. Still, some cases involved individuals who were healthy and young.

Myth: There is no treatment for the flu. Patients who are diagnosed with the flu within 72 hours of getting it can be treated with an antiviral medication that can only be prescribed by their doctor. Many times this treatment is reserved for those who are high-risk, but can be given to normally healthy individuals who have a severe case of the flu. These medications not only help to alleviate the severity of the symptoms and shorten the time in which the individual deals with them, but they can also prevent serious flu-related complications such as pneumonia.

“The medicine should be used for those who are very, very sick with the flu, those who have to be hospitalized for the flu or those who have high-risk problems such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes or heart disease,” Dr. Davis said. “That’s why it is important for those with high-risk problems to see their doctor as soon as they begin experiencing any symptoms of the flu.”

Myth: When people say, “I have the stomach flu.” “I hear people say they have the stomach flu or sinus flu or whatever kind of flu they want to call it,” Davis said. “There are hundreds or thousands of viral infections, but influenza is the flu.” Dr. Davis says that while vomiting, diarrhea and feeling sick to your stomach can be related to the flu, they are rarely the main symptoms of actual influenza. Likewise, a bad common cold is not the flu either. It may share similar symptoms — such as sore throat and upper respiratory issues — but it rarely includes the extreme aches and high fever associated with the flu virus.

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