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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.


Various Flu Immunizations

Vaccines and Immunizations

Vaccines work by forcing the body to create its own protection against a disease. Flu vaccines are no different. By introducing a number of flu viruses into the body of a patient, it is hoped that the latter's immune system will begin to produce antibodies that will serve to fight and defeat the infection when the time comes.

Because flu strains mutate each year, the World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. Department of Health, and the Canadian Public Health services decide which viruses will probably be the most common in any given year. The viruses, whether dead or live, will be packaged with some antigens (substances that cause antibodies to form) and made available to the general public. It is necessary to get a flu shot each year in order to get the most up-to-date protection from the virus.

Types of Immunizations

There are two types of vaccines. The first and more common is called the flu shot. The flu shot (generally administered through an injection in the arm) contains three strains of dead influenza viruses. It is considered generally safe for anyone above six months of age. From six months to nine years of age, up to two flu shots can be given each year, spaced at least a month apart. After age nine, only one flu shot is needed per year.

The nasal-spray vaccine, also known as the LAIV, contains three live, albeit weakened viruses. The does is administered as through the nasal orifice, as a spray or mist. It is not considered safe for young children, pregnant women, or those above 65 years old.

Before Getting the Vaccines

Before you get a vaccine shot, you should go to your doctor and ask for his advice. There are risks to taking the vaccine, especially if you have underlying medical conditions.

Be sure to tell your doctor if you…

Are allergic to certain foods or substances. If you have ever had an allergic reaction to a certain substance, be sure to inform your doctor. For instance, if you have experienced an allergic reaction due to a past flu shot or because of some antibiotics, the vaccine might be unsafe for you. Also, take note that the viruses used in flu shots are raised in eggs, so if you are allergic to the latter, you are probably allergic to the former.

Pregnant. The nasal-spray vaccine, known as the LAIV, is considered unsafe for women who are expecting. Pregnant women are advised to take the flu shot instead.

Have underlying medical conditions. This especially applies to the elderly. It will be useful to your doctor is he or she knows your complete medical history. This way, he or she might be able to tell you about any complications you might have to look out for. Asthma, bronchitis, and any other condition involving the bronchial system should be revealed.

Are taking other medications. If you are taking the nasal-spray vaccine, don't forget to let your doctor know if you are using 1) aspirin, 2) alkylating drugs (for cancer), 3) antimetabolite drugs (for cancer), 4) any type of immunosuppressive therapy, and 5) any type of radiation therapy.

Take note that it is possible for you to suffer side effects from the vaccines. If this occurs, let your doctor know right away.

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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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