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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.

 


Why Medical Professionals Need A Flu Vaccine

Any who has contracted influenza (or simply the flu) before can attest to the suffering that it induces on the patient. It can even become life-threatening in certain situations. The medical profession understandably wants to protect the general population for such a deadly and debilitating sickness; thus the need for flu vaccines.

Why Get A Flu Vaccine?

As mentioned before, the flu can be a very deadly disease. Each year, a little less than 40,000 people die of flu in the United States alone. The flu also causes more about 200,000 to be hospitalized. This figure, of course, does not include those people who simply opt to stay at home and nurse themselves back to health there. One can only guess how many people are affected by flu each year.

The Two Types of Flu Vaccine

There are two kinds of flu vaccines. The traditional vaccine or what we know as the flu shot, can be described as an inactivated vaccine. This vaccine contains a virus that has already been killed, and is usually administered using a hypodermic needle. The flu shot can be administered to anyone of reasonable health over six months of age.

Recently, another type of vaccine has become available. Known as the Live Attenuated Influenza Vaccine (LAIV), this vaccine contains weakened, but live viruses. Unlike the flu shot, it is administered through a nasal-spray, and is only legally approved for people of good health between the ages of 5 and 49.

What Do Vaccines Do?

Both the flu shot and the nasal-spray flu vaccine work to improve the body's defenses against infection. They accomplish this by developing antibodies against the influenza strain. The anitbodies are exposed to the viruses that are contained in the vaccines; and this causes the former to adapt to the invader. As a result, the antibodies become more efficient in combatting future attacks of influenza.

How Often Should Vaccines Be Taken?

Medical professionals recommend that people get a flu vaccine at least once a year. For those who live in the United States, "flu season" is usually from November to April. This means that most people contract the sickness during this period; and infections within the general population are at its height.

Because the flu vaccine does not work right away, medical professionals recommend that the flu vaccine be taken before November. The antibodies take at least two weeks to upgrade their capacity against the flu virus, and during that time the individual is still at risk from the illness. Thus, it is a good idea to get vaccinated during the months of September, October, and November. That way, once "flu season" gets underway, the body will have had enough time to prepare its defenses.

Note that flu viruses change (or mutate) each year, which means that to prevent the flu, you will have to get a dose of vaccine at least once a year. Even so, it is still possible to get the flu. The efficiency of the vaccine itself depends on the health of the person involved, as well as the similarity of the virus strains in the vaccine and those that are circulating outside.

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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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