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Published on September 17, 2019

It’s not yet fall, so why a flu shot?

Flu Shot

Fall is just around the corner and, to steal a line from the popular HBO series “Game of Thrones,” winter is coming. That means the time has arrived for sweaters on chilly evenings, sticking a log into the fireplace and, of course, planning your annual flu vaccination.

The weather is still warm, and flu season might seem a long way off, but now is the time to be vaccinated, said Cape Cod Hospital hospitalist Karen Monaghan, MD.

“It takes about two weeks after vaccination to make the antibodies that provide protection against the flu, so we recommend getting the flu shot in October and November,” she said. “But even if January comes around and you haven’t gotten it, it’s never too late.

While many people don’t take the time or see the need for a flu shot, the vaccination is covered by many medical plans and there is ample evidence that flu shots significantly lower the risk of contracting what can be a deadly illness.

Dr. Monaghan has seen the skepticism from patients as they debate its effectiveness and the belief by some that the flu shot will actually make them ill.

“One thing I assure patients is that you can’t get the flu from the flu shot,” Dr. Monaghan said. “You might feel mild pain or swelling around the injection site, have a headache or feel mildly unwell, but you will not get the flu from the flu shot.”

Even those who decide to vaccinate ask her questions.

“The most common question I hear from patients who are hospitalized with the flu is ‘I got the flu shot, so how did I still get the flu?’” she said. “I tell them, ‘I’m so glad you got the shot, because as sick as you may be now, you would be a lot sicker, might have ended up in the intensive care unit or even died if you had not received the flu shot.’”

The flu vaccination does not guarantee you will not get the flu, but it definitely reduces the severity of the illness and reduces your risk of landing in the hospital.

“Even if the vaccine is only 30 to 40 percent effective during some flu seasons, it’s still worthwhile to get the shot,” Dr. Monaghan says.

There are many worthwhile reasons why everyone should be vaccinated each year against the flu, but the major reason, as Dr. Monaghan points out, is that the illness can kill you. In 2018, admittedly one of the deadliest flu seasons in decades, an estimated 80,000 people died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“The flu shot is especially important for anyone over age 65,” Dr. Monaghan said. “About 70 percent of flu deaths occur in patients over 65, and they also account for the vast majority of hospitalizations.”

But it’s not just older people who benefit from the flu vaccine. It helps protect women during and after pregnancy by reducing the risk of acute respiratory infection by 50 percent, and studies have shown that the flu shot reduced by 40 percent a pregnant woman’s risk of being hospitalized with the flu, according to the CDC. Pregnant women are especially vulnerable to the flu because pregnancy affects the immune system and decreases lung volume, making it more difficult to clear a respiratory infection. When pregnant women get the flu, it can increase the risk of birth defects and premature delivery, according to the CDC.

Women who receive the flu shot during pregnancy also pass on antibodies to their baby, protecting a newborn for several months after birth. A 2017 study also showed that the flu vaccination can significantly reduce a child’s risk of dying from influenza.

The CDC recommends that all pregnant women get a flu vaccine during any trimester.

The flu vaccination also plays a central role is reducing the risk of hospitalization for people of all ages. A 2018 study showed that from 2012 to 2015, adults who were vaccinated were 82 percent less likely to be admitted to the intensive care unit, while children were 74 percent less likely to be admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit. In the same study, vaccinated adults who were admitted to the ICU spent on average of four fewer days in the hospital than those who were not vaccinated.

The flu vaccination has also been shown to lower rates of some cardiac events among people with heart disease, and other studies have indicated it reduces hospitalization among people with diabetes and chronic lung disease.

Those are all good health reasons to be vaccinated. But it’s also a good idea as a service to others. By getting vaccinated, you could also be protecting people around you from contracting the flu, including babies, young children and others with chronic health conditions that are more vulnerable to a serious flu illness.