Vaccines are top of mind for everyone these days. The vaccines that protect against COVID-19 show how important immunization is, not just for your own health but for the health of the entire community — and sometimes the whole world.
The fact is that vaccinations are one of the most important public health developments in the history of medicine. Diseases that once killed millions now can largely be ignored thanks to the protective power of immunization. Which brings us from the coronavirus to the most common and deadly respiratory disease: influenza.
The flu vaccine helps millions of people from getting sick and having to visit a doctor every year, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During the 2019-2020 flu season, vaccination prevented an estimated 7.5 million flu illnesses, 3.7 million flu-associated medical visits, 105,000 hospitalizations and 6,300 deaths, according to the CDC. When the vaccine is most similar to the actual viruses in any particular season, it can reduce the risk of having to go to the doctor with flu by 40% to 60%.
Unlike some other viruses that don’t mutate much and require only one or two immunizations in a lifetime, the viruses that cause flu change every year. That’s why a new serum is developed to fight it, and you need a new shot in the arm every fall.
The good news is almost everyone is eligible for the vaccine each flu season. “There really are very few reasons to decline the flu shot,” says Dr. Sterling Ransone, a practicing family physician in Deltaville, Virginia, and president-elect of the American Academy of Family Physicians.
Reasons to Avoid Flu Shots
The CDC says that only the following people should not get the flu shot:
— Children younger than 6 months of age, who are too young to get it.
— People with severe, life-threatening allergies to the flu vaccine or any ingredient in the vaccine, including gelatin, antibiotics or other ingredients.
Note that this list does not include egg allergies. “In the past we have advised those with severe egg allergies to avoid the flu shot, but the CDC has updated their guidance,” says Dr. James Ellzy, a practicing family physician in Washington, D.C.
Most flu vaccines are made using egg-based technology and contain a small amount of egg proteins. However, studies looking at both the flu shot and the nasal spray vaccine in patients allergic to eggs and those who are not show that severe allergic reactions in people with egg allergies are highly unlikely. A recent CDC study found the rate of anaphylaxis after all vaccines is 1.31 per 1 million vaccine doses given.
For those reasons, the CDC changed its recommendations in 2018. “Those with mild egg allergies — up to hives — can receive any flu vaccine, and those with severe egg allergies can receive any flu vaccine ‘under the supervision of a health care provider who is able to recognize and manage severe allergic conditions,'” Ellzy says.
Reasons to Talk to a Health Care Provider
If you have an allergy to eggs or any of the ingredients in the vaccine, the CDC recommends that you talk with your health care provider to decide whether vaccination is a good idea and to choose the best vaccine for your health history. Other reasons to talk to a doctor first include:
— If you ever had Guillain-Barre Syndrome (a severe paralyzing illness, also called GBS). Some people with a history of GBS should not get a flu vaccine.
— If you are not feeling well on the day of your vaccination.
What About the Flu Vaccine Nasal Spray?
These recommendations refer only to a flu shot. The vaccine can also be administered through a nasal spray. The spray is approved for use in healthy, nonpregnant women ages 2 through 49. Those who should not get the spray, or at least consult with a doctor first, include:
— Children younger than 2 years.
— Adults 50 years and older.
— Pregnant women.
— People with severe, life-threatening allergies to flu vaccine or any ingredient in the vaccine.
— Children ages 2 through 17 who are receiving aspirin- or salicylate-containing medications.
— People with weakened immune systems (immunosuppression).
— People who care for or are in close contact with someone who is severely immunocompromised and requires a protected environment.
— Children ages 2 through 4 who have asthma or who have had a history of wheezing in the past 12 months.
— People who have taken influenza antiviral drugs within the previous 48 hours.
People Who Can Get the Flu Shot
It bears repeating that this is actually a pretty small list, and the vast majority of people can and should get a flu shot, including pregnant women, people with some chronic health conditions and, again, most people with an egg allergy.
So if you have any questions, talk to your doctor first. Then, roll up your sleeve.
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