It might still be summertime and scorching hot outside, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t time to start thinking about getting your seasonal influenza vaccine.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are among the agencies that recommends getting the seasonal flu shot as early as it’s available, and that’s good advice, said Dr. Sharon Reed with Bon Secours Ghent Medical Associates.
“Don’t wait until everybody is sick to get your flu shot,” she said.
Reed has her family vaccinated in September, ahead of the start of “flu season” which usually begins in October in Hampton Roads and Virginia, and peaks between December and February. It typically takes about two weeks for the vaccine to build antibodies and begin offering protection.
And no, regardless of the myth that is so often heard at this time of the year, the flu vaccine doesn’t cause those who take it to develop influenza.
Reed said the vaccine contains viruses that have been “inactivated” and thus can’t cause influenza.
“It can however cause mild, short lasting side effects, but it doesn’t give you the flu,” she said, adding that there can be minor side effects such as a low-grade fever, aches, and soreness at the injection site.
The influenza viruses are constantly drifting and shifting, both between flu seasons and during them. Vaccines typically come in trivalent (protecting against three viruses – two A-strains and one B-strain) or quadrivalent (protecting against four strains – two A-strains and two B-strains).
The seasonal vaccines are meant to protect against the influenza strains experts believe will be the most common during the flu season.
This year’s trivalent vaccines will protect against the A/Michigan strain, a H1N1-like virus; A/Singapore, a H3N2-like virus; and B/Colorado (Victoria lineage), while the quadrivalent vaccine will also protect against the B/Phuket strain (Yamagata lineage).
How well the vaccines protect people depends on how closely they match the viruses that are ultimately in circulation.
“It’s important to know that even if the vaccine doesn’t closely match the viruses circulating, it still helps protect people,” Reed said. “Should you become infected your case of the flu will be milder because you had a flu shot.”
It’s especially important for people 65 and older (50 and older is recommended by the CDC) to get the flu shot, since their ability to fight the virus is lower. Children 6 months to 4 years of age are considered high risk, since their immune system is still developing.
Reed said children younger than 8 years of age who have never had the flu vaccine will need two doses – at least four weeks apart – to gain protection.
Pregnant women and those with a chronic health condition are also considered high-risk for complications from influenza.
Bon Secours is offering free flu shots during their annual Drive-Thru Flu Shot Day event on Sept. 29, from 8-11 a.m. at four of their locations: Bon Secours DePaul Medical Center, Bon Secours Mary Immaculate Hospital, Bon Secours Maryview Medical Center, and the Bon Secours Health Center at Harbour View.