Flu Update: What You Need to Know for 2013

The flu vaccine for the 2013-14 year is now widely available. And there are more vaccine choices than ever. It can be overwhelming. I’ve talked about the influenza previously, but here are some updates for the upcoming flu season.

How bad will the flu be this year?

The severity of the virus varies from year to year. Just how sick people will get and how widespread the infected populations will be this year are unknown at this time. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) will be tracking the effects of the virus as it starts to infect communities.

What is influenza?

  • Cause. A respiratory virus that infects the nose, throat, and lungs and causes the flu.
  • Symptoms. Common symptoms are fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, and fatigue. In children, vomiting and diarrhea are also common.
  • Spread. It is extremely contagious.
  • Complications. Besides being a miserable illness that can leave you tired for weeks, complications such as pneumonia, ear infections, and hospitalizations are common.

Children less than 2 years of age have the highest risk of complications and hospitalizations.

How do you prevent getting the flu?

  • By getting the vaccine. Influenza vaccination is the best way to prevent getting sick from the flu. (Hibernating in the house through flu season is not an option for most of us.)

What about the influenza vaccination?

  • You need to get vaccinated every year. The flu virus itself is constantly and spontaneously changing; this means that each year scientists must reformulate the vaccine so it can protect us against the latest variation of the virus.
  • The vaccine is probably never 100 percent effective. But, even in years when the vaccine is not a good match with the circulating viruses, getting vaccinated generally offers some protection, and those individuals who do get the flu vaccine will have a less severe bout of the flu.
  • September and October are the busiest months for the flu vaccine. The flu season frequently occurs from October through as late as May, with January and February usually being the peak months for infection.
  • The vaccine (all versions of it) can be given all through flu season—just be aware that the immune system needs about 2 weeks to generate a protective defense against the virus.

New for 2013

  • Better protection. A vaccine has been developed that contains versions of the four influenza viruses that scientists have identified as the ones most likely to be circulating during this year’s flu season. This quadruple-barreled vaccine, however, may not be available everywhere because it came out relatively late in this year’s vaccine production and ordering. (Previous years’ vaccines contained three versions of the virus.)
  • More options for those with egg allergy. There is a “recombinant” vaccine available for egg-allergic individuals. However, it is currently approved only for 18- to 49-year-olds. (Keep in mind, though, that almost all children with an egg allergy can get the regular injected influenza vaccination safely. Talk to your child's pediatrician.)
  • Less pain. There is an “intradermal” version of the shot available. (The “classic” shot is injected into a muscle.) This intradermal version uses a far smaller needle—it feels like you’re just getting a tuberculosis skin test—so you have less pain during the injection and no sore arm the following day. Currently, however, this improved injection is only approved for 18- to 64-years-old.
  • Updated intranasal vaccine, too. FluMist is squirted into the nose. It too is available with the four versions of viruses that are being used this year, and is approved for use in otherwise healthy 2- to 49-year-olds.

Who should get vaccinated?

  • The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that any child 6 months or older get the vaccine.
  • High-risk children—those with chronic medical disorders that include such things as asthma, diabetes, heart disease, immune conditions, or neurologic maladies.
  • All household members and caregivers of high-risk children, as well as of infants less than 6 months of age.
  • Pregnant women are at increased risk of complications if they get sick with influenza. Vaccination is the best prevention.
  • High-risk children and pregnant women are advised to get the standard influenza shot of vaccine, which contains a killed version of the viruses. (The intranasal version contains live weakened virus; so, theoretically, someone with a weakened immune system could get the flu from that particular vaccine.)
  • Health care professionals (quite a few of whom still stubbornly refuse to get the vaccine, believe it or not).

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