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What is Influenza (also called Flu)?

The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death. The best way to prevent the flu is by getting a flu vaccination each fall.

Every year in the United States, on average:

  • 5% to 20% of the population gets the flu;
  • more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu complications, and;
  • about 36,000 people die from flu.

Some people, such as older people, young children, and people with certain health conditions, are at high risk for serious flu complications.

Symptoms of Flu

Symptoms of flu include:

  • fever (usually high)
  • headache
  • extreme tiredness
  • dry cough
  • sore throat
  • runny or stuffy nose
  • muscle aches
  • Stomach symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, also can occur but are more common in children than adults


Complications of Flu

Complications of flu can include bacterial pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections, dehydration, and worsening of chronic medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma, or diabetes.


The Risks of Flu Vaccines

The Flu Vaccines: The Flu Shot

The flu shot is a vaccine containing three flu viruses. The three strains, which include one A (H3N2) virus, one A (H1N1) virus, and one b virus, represent the strains that are thought to be circulating in the general population at a given year.

The viruses in the flu shot are inactive, meaning they're dead. These viruses are grown from eggs, killed, and then administered to the human immune system through a needle injection.

The flu shot is very useful in preventing incidences of the flu. While not foolproof, the flu shot drastically reduces flu risk. Thus, people who wish to avoid getting infected are well-advised to get a flu shot each year.

The following list of people should get a flu shot each year:

1. those with health problems relating to flu complications;

2. children from ages six months to five years;

3. pregnant women;

4. those aged fifty years and older;

5. those with health problems relating to chronic medical conditions;

6. people who live in long term care facilities such as nursing homes;

healthcare workers

People who live with the people in the list should probably also get a regular flu shot. The flu shot should not taken by people who have a fever, or those who have exhibited an allergic reaction to the flu shot. Respiratory illnesses are alright. To be safe, be sure to consult with your doctor and get his or her approval before getting a shot.

The Risks of the Flu Shot

Since the viruses in the flu shot are dead, it is theoretically impossible to get the flu from the flu shot. The chance of the flu shot causing serious harm to anyone is very, very small. Unfortunately, however, all vaccines have the potential to cause allergic reactions - sometimes severe allergic reactions. While the possibility is small, it cannot be ruled out. Still, a large majority of people who get the flu shot suffer absolutely no ill effects from it.

Allergic reactions that are life-threatening are very rare. Symptoms of an allergic reaction can include breathing problems like hoarseness or wheezing, getting flushed or becoming pale, a sense of weakness, an irregular and fast heartbeat, or dizziness and light-headedness. If it is an allergic reaction, these symptoms will begin to manifest within a few hours of the shot. People who are allergic to eggs are the most at risk for a reaction since flu viruses are gown inside hens' eggs.

Like all other medicines, of course, the flu shot can produce side effects. Side effects may include soreness, redness, and swelling in the area where the shot was given. It may also cause a low grade fever and some muscles aches. However, these effects should disappear within one or two days.

If a serious allergic reaction and/or side effect should occur, be sure to contact your doctor right away. Be sure to tell your physician what has happened, the time which it happened, and how long it has been since your flu shot. Be sure to follow his or her instructions and you should be fine.

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Who Should Get Vaccinated?

In general, anyone who wants to reduce their chances of getting the flu can get vaccinated. However, certain people should get vaccinated each year either because they are at high risk of having serious flu-related complications or because they live with or care for high risk persons. During flu seasons when vaccine supplies are limited or delayed, ACIP makes recommendations regarding priority groups for vaccination.

People who should get vaccinated each year are:

1. People at high risk for complications from the flu, including:

  • Children aged 6–59 months of age,
  • Pregnant women,
  • People 50 years of age and older,
  • People of any age with certain chronic medical conditions, and
  • People who live in nursing homes and other long term care facilities.

2. People who live with or care for those at high risk for complications from flu, including:

  • Household contacts of persons at high risk for complications from the flu (see above)
  • Household contacts and out of home caregivers of children less than 6 months of age (these children are too young to be vaccinated)
  • Health care workers.

3. Anyone who wants to decrease their risk of influenza.


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