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Information from Your Family Doctor
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Am Fam Physician. 2003 Feb 15;67(4):797-798.
What is influenza?
Influenza (also called the flu) is a viral infection in the nose, throat, and lungs. About 10 to 20 percent of Americans get the flu each year. Some people get very sick. Each year, about 130,000 people go to a hospital with the flu, and 20,000 people die because of the flu and complications.
The flu may cause fever, cough, sore throat, a runny nose or a stuffy nose, headache, muscle aches, and tiredness. Some people describe the flu as being like the worst cold of their life. Most people feel better after one or two weeks, but for some people, the flu leads to serious, even life-threatening diseases, such as pneumonia. Influenza vaccine (the flu shot) is recommended for people who are more likely to get really sick and need to be protected from getting the flu.
Who is at higher risk?
You have a higher risk of flu complications like pneumonia if you:
Are 50 years or older
Are a health care worker
Have a lung problem, such as asthma or emphysema
Have a suppressed immune system
Have a problem with your kidneys
Have diabetes, heart disease, or other long-term health problems
If you are in any of these groups, you should probably get the flu vaccine every year.
Other people also should get the vaccine because they might spread the flu to high-risk people. You should get the vaccine if you work in a long-term care facility. Even if you are not at higher risk, you may want to get the flu vaccine so you don't get sick with the flu.
What is the flu vaccine?
The flu vaccine is a shot. It contains killed viruses. You can't get the flu from the vaccine because the viruses are dead. But your body builds up antibodies to the virus to protect you from the flu. When a “live” virus shows up, your defenses are ready. These defenses keep you from getting the flu. Because flu viruses change from year to year, you must get the shot each year to be protected.
If I get a flu shot, can I still get the flu?
Yes. Even with a flu shot, you aren't completely protected. Each year, the flu vaccine contains three different strains (kinds) of the virus. The strains chosen are those that scientists believe are most likely to show up in the United States that year. If their choice is right, the vaccine is 70 to 90 percent effective in preventing the flu in healthy people younger than 65 years. If you're older than 65, the vaccine is less likely to prevent the flu. If you get the flu after the vaccine, however, your flu symptoms should be milder than if you didn't get the vaccine. You will also be less likely to get complications from the flu.
Is the vaccine safe?
Yes. The flu vaccine is safe for people older than six months. There are few side effects. Your arm may be sore for a few days. You may have a fever, feel tired, or have sore muscles for a short time.
Some people are allergic to the flu vaccine. If you have a severe allergy to eggs, you shouldn't get the shot. You should talk to your doctor about your egg allergy. He or she will tell you if it is okay for you to get the flu shot.
Some pregnant women should not get the flu shot. Talk to your doctor if you are pregnant and want to get the flu vaccine.
Where can I learn more about the flu shot?
For more information, you can call the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Immunization Information Hotline at these numbers:
This handout is provided to you by your family doctor and the American Academy of Family Physicians. Other health-related information is available from the AAFP online at http://familydoctor.org.
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.
Copyright © 2003 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
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