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By Jennifer Sedillo, Faculty Member, Public Health, American Public University; Karen Tribble, Student, Public Health; and Jarvis Martir, Student, Public Health
The holiday season coincides with peak influenza season. In the crowds of shoppers, you will come into close contact with other people. Some of these people may be carriers of the influenza virus.
How Do You Know if Other People Harbor Influenza?
Carriers of the influenza virus do not show symptoms. But people who are infected with the influenza virus have typical symptoms, including fever, fatigue, muscle and body aches, sore throat, cough and a runny/stuffy nose. An experimental study found that a cough with enough force to carry a virus travels at a rate of 0.5 meters per second and easily reaches someone standing almost 3.5 feet away.
The virus can also be transmitted by other means, such as direct contact with people or objects. Even people without any outward symptoms can harbor the virus and spread it to others. Influenza has an average incubation period of three days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Most people become infectious one day before symptoms develop. They stay infectious five to seven days after symptoms appear.
Every year, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices at the CDC sets out new recommendations for flu vaccination and tells Americans to get a new vaccination for the coming flu season. Unfortunately, many Americans ignore the advice.
Do I Need to Be Vaccinated Again This Year?
The short answer is yes, you should be vaccinated unless it is not recommended by your doctor. The CDC recommends everyone over the age of six months receive an injection-based vaccinated yearly. However, CDC does not advise using the nasal spray, due to its potential ineffectiveness against a common strain of the flu in children.
Even people with egg allergies are recommended to get vaccinated unless they have had a reaction to the vaccine previously. If the egg allergy is severe, the vaccination should be administered in a medical setting.
Recently, there has been some concern about miscarriages associated with a particular form of the flu virus in the vaccine. However, officials still recommend that pregnant women receive the vaccine, because the flu can be very dangerous to them and to their developing fetus.
When Is the Best Time to Receive the Flu Vaccination?
NOW! Flu activity throughout the U.S. is still low and sporadic.
In order to develop immunity, it is best to be vaccinated two weeks prior to exposure to the flu virus. Ideally, vaccination should occur by the end of October.
This year’s flu vaccine may have been available as early as July or August and those who have received the vaccine should not be revaccinated. The flu season might not peak until January, February or later, so you can get vaccination later than October if necessary.
Why Don’t Flu Vaccines Always Work?
The flu virus is constantly evolving and can easily change surface proteins, which are needed for the immune system to recognize the virus.
Each year, new strains (meaning a slightly different version of the flu virus) circulate among populations. Epidemiologists identify and track the new strains to predict which strain will be prevalent during the flu season.
Because this prediction is much like predicting the weather, the prediction is more accurate during some years than others. Even if the circulating strain is different than predicted, the vaccine can provide some protection and thereby reduce the severity of the flu.
Why Is It Important to Be Vaccinated?
By receiving the flu vaccine, you are protecting yourself and others. Complicated influenza can occur in some population groups, including people 65 and older, children under the five years old, and people with certain medical conditions.
Complications include bronchitis, heart problems and ear infections. But pneumonia is the most serious and potentially deadly complication. The CDC says every year about 100 children will succumb to complications from influenza.
Some of these high-risk populations cannot receive the flu vaccine due to their medical condition or age. Instead, they depend on the people around them to protect them by not harboring the virus and this can be done through vaccination.
According to a recent CDC information letter, “influenza vaccination prevented approximately 5.1 million influenza illnesses, 2.5 million influenza-associated medical visits and 71,000 influenza associated hospitalizations during the 2015-2016 season, with an overall vaccine effectiveness of 48%.”
The CDC recommends a three-step plan to fight against the flu:
- Vaccination is the most important step for preventing virus transmission.
- Practice everyday hygiene, including washing your hands frequently, covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing, and preventing contact with others when you are ill.
- Take antiviral medication if a medical professional diagnoses you with the flu.
As you prepare for the holidays, add “get a flu shot” to your to-do list. You can get a vaccination at your doctor’s office, a walk-in health clinic, a drugstore or a grocery store with a pharmacy. There are no excuses: be prepared!
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About the Authors
Jennifer Sedillo is an associate professor in the Public Health program at American Public University. She recently received her doctorate from the University of South Florida, where she was involved in infectious disease research. She has been involved in biomedical and environmental microbiology research for the past 12 years.
Karen Tribble is a program manager with the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA). She always knew she wanted to be able to help educate others in ways to live a healthier life. Karen is enrolled in the MPH program at American Military University and looks forward to beginning a career in health education.
Jarvis Martir is a student in the Master of Public Health program at American Military University. He received his bachelor’s in public relations from Florida A&M University. Upon completing this degree program, Jarvis would like to attain a career working as a Health Communications Specialist for the CDC or local health department.
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