As the seasons change and colder weather approaches, so does the arrival of flu season. The flu is a contagious respiratory disease caused by influenza viruses. For most, symptoms typically include fever, cough, sore throat, fatigue, and aches, but in severe cases, it may lead to hospitalization or death. Those that are 65 years or older, young children, or people with certain health conditions or compromised immune systems are at a higher risk of developing a severe case of the flu.
One powerful weapon we have against the flu is the flu vaccine, which is recommended for most people to take in September or October each year but can be taken anytime during flu season, which usually runs from September through March. We spoke with Danielle Smith, Chief Nursing Officer, and Melinda Massey, Occupational Health Nursing Senior Manager, to explore the importance of the flu vaccine.
The Benefits of the Flu Vaccine
The flu vaccine significantly reduces the risk of contracting the flu. The vaccine works by telling your immune system to produce antibodies to fight against the virus. This helps your body prepare to fight off the flu if you were to catch it. If you do get the flu despite being vaccinated, the severity and duration of your illness is likely to be reduced. One study found that from October 2022 to January 2023, adults who were vaccinated against the flu were 43% less likely to be hospitalized because of the flu or related complications. The vaccine helps your immune system mount a quicker and more effective defense against the virus.
“By getting vaccinated, you're not only safeguarding your own health but also protecting those who are more vulnerable to severe flu-related complications, such as the elderly, young children, pregnant women, and individuals with certain medical conditions,” said Danielle Smith.
The Annual Flu Shot: Why It Matters for You
The flu virus is constantly changing. Because of this, a new flu vaccine formulation is needed each year and is tailored to the specific strains that are predicted to circulate during the upcoming flu season. Receiving a new flu shot annually is important for several reasons:
- Strain Adaptation: Getting a fresh, updated shot makes sure your immunity is aligned with the most current strains, maximizing your protection.
- Waning Immunity: Over time, the immunity gained from previous flu vaccinations may diminish. Annual shots help bolster your immune response.
- Cross-Immunity: The flu vaccine doesn't just offer protection against the specific strain it contains, but also other related types of flu viruses that may still be present.
The Health Risks of Skipping the Flu Vaccine
If you choose not to receive your annual flu vaccine, your immune system's ability to fend off the virus is weakened, leaving you vulnerable to more severe symptoms. It can also contribute to higher rates of flu transmission within your community, putting those who cannot be vaccinated (due to medical conditions or age) at greater risk. When the flu virus circulates unchecked, it has more opportunities to mutate and potentially give rise to more dangerous strains.
“We hear from a lot of patients who have misconceptions about the flu vaccine,” said Melinda Massey. “The flu vaccine is important for people of all ages, regardless of whether or not you’re healthy or if you’ve had the flu in the past.”
Here are some common myths surrounding the flu vaccine:
- "The Vaccine Can Give You the Flu": The flu vaccine contains inactivated flu virus or a viral component that cannot cause the flu. Some people may experience achiness or other symptoms after getting the vaccine because of the immune response that is activated to protect you against flu infection.
- "I'm Healthy, and I Don't Need It": Even healthy individuals can benefit from the flu vaccine. Getting it will help to reduce the severity of symptoms if you were to get the flu. In addition, getting the flu vaccine helps to protect those in your community.
- “I Got the Vaccine Last Year. I Don’t Need It This Year”: There are many strains of the flu virus, and they can change quickly. A new vaccine is developed each year to protect against developing strains. Without a yearly flu shot, you are at greater risk of getting the flu.
Your primary care doctor is an important resource in answering questions about the flu vaccine and getting you vaccinated against the flu. Getting the flu vaccine allows you to play an active role in protecting your health and that of your community. Make an appointment to get your flu shot today!