By David Meduna, MD, FAAP
Looking for a great way to keep your family healthy? Complete children’s Health has Influenza vaccination available now. All children six months and older should get the influenza vaccine. In addition, adults who care for young children and people who care for individuals with chronic illnesses should get the vaccine. Influenza vaccination is available by nurse appointment in one of our “flu shot clinics” or during your scheduled well child appointment.
Influenza is a respiratory illness that can be severe and can cause serious illness and even death. Patients with influenza experience rapid onset of very high fever, severe body aches, headache, dry cough, runny nose, sore throat, and occasionally vomiting. Most people report feeling well one minute and very ill the next. The disease is known to be what we call prostrating. This means that it puts you on your back for up to a week. People often say that even if they wanted to get up they could not. When people say flu they often think of the “stomach flu.” Although influenza can cause some vomiting in younger children, the severe vomiting and diarrheal illness without respiratory symptoms often referred to as “the stomach flu” is not the same thing as influenza.
Many people falsely believe that influenza is a mild illness like a cold. In reality, influenza can cause severe complications including pneumonia, sinus infections, muscle breakdown (rhabodmyolysis), brain infection (encephalitis or meningitis), brain damage, and death. The people who are most likely to have these complications are the very young (especially less than 2 years of age), the elderly, and people with chronic medical conditions (for example: diabetes, asthma). The H1N1 pandemic strain of influenza we saw in 2009 seemed to make healthy young people and pregnant women more ill than the typical “seasonal” strains we have seen in the past. Influenza kills on average 30,000 people per year in the United States.
There is also a myth that influenza vaccine causes influenza illness. The shot only contains killed virus. There is no way it can give you influenza. The mist is a live “attenuated” vaccine. It can grow only in the nose (not in the lungs like the influenza virus) and is weakened so it won’t cause influenza infection. Individuals with weakened immune systems or asthma should not receive the mist form of the vaccine. Because we give the influenza vaccine during cold and flu season, people often coincidently catch a cold virus right after getting the vaccine. Since the influenza vaccine triggers your body to have an immune response (thus protecting you from future infection), some mild fever and body aches for a day or two after the vaccine is normal and expected. These minor side effects are much better then being infected with influenza.
The influenza vaccine will protect most people who get the vaccination, but protection is not 100%. Every year the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) along with the vaccine makers predict which of the many strains of influenza need to be in the vaccine. Some years this prediction is more accurate than others because the virus can mutate. Even if the “match” is not perfect, it is important to be vaccinated as the vaccines contain 3 different strains. Most years there is more than one strain circulating during the influenza season. Influenza vaccination will protect you for up to a year and the CDC recommend getting the vaccine as soon as it is available. Influenza can also be prevented by good hand washing, covering your cough, and avoiding touching your eyes and nose.
There are some treatments that can help shorten the duration and severity of an influenza infection but they work best if given within the first 24-48 hours of illness. Treatment is typically reserved for patients with severe infection or individuals with high risk of complications. Restricting treatment for influenza to these individuals prevents the development of resistance to theses antiviral medications.