It’s that time of year for my annual column reminding you to get a flu shot.
After years of writing boring flu vaccine columns, like all my life, I decided to do my first Floo Fighters column in 2019 as a tribute to my favorite rock band.
To celebrate the Foo Fighters upcoming concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl on Sept. 28, I am offering you an updated version.
For the best of you who also enjoy rocking out to Dave Grohl, Santa Barbara native Chris Shifflett and the Foo Fighters, you’re welcome. You’ll find Foo song titles in italics. For those who don’t, I hope you still consider getting a flu shot before we have a breakout.
Times Like These
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that each year, starting around summer’s end (October), the influenza virus sickens millions, hospitalizes hundreds of thousands and kills thousands (sometimes tens of thousands) of people.
To combat this potentially deadly virus, a new influenza (flu) vaccine is developed each year based on the strains of influenza that are predicted to circulate from October through May. This means that a new flu vaccine will be created next year.
What is Influenza?
Influenza is a seasonal virus that causes a sudden onset of high fever, body aches, headache, cough, runny nose, sore throat, fatigue, vomiting or diarrhea. Some will feel about as lonely as you can feel and complain that “my poor brain hurts.” You may find yourself waking up to take medicine at midnight.
Symptoms are more severe than the common cold, with fevers that seem to last everlong, cause hallucinations as if you were chasing birds, leave you MIA, and feeling exhausted for weeks until you are back on the mend.
People at high risk, including young children and others with low immunity or chronic health conditions, may get sicker and develop pneumonia, dehydration or require hospitalization.
Recommendations for 2023-24
In 2020 we all stayed home, masked, distanced, and benefited from a very mild flu season. With schools back in session and respiratory viruses already spreading like they are making a fire, we could see much more influenza this season.
But cheer up, boys, there is still a way to prevent the flu. Since 2010, the CDC has recommended that virtually everyone older than age 6 months receive a yearly flu vaccine.
Some years, the flu vaccine proves to be more effective than others. A few years ago, the flu vaccine was about 50 percent effective. What does that mean?
While not a miracle, about 50 percent of people who got the vaccine didn’t develop the flu or had only a very mild case. Of the other 50 percent, they likely had much less severe symptoms or were less likely to contract and pass the virus on to others.
The more people who get the flu vaccine each season, the less likely the flu virus is to spread through our community and find those who are medically fragile, have low immunity or are unable to receive a flu vaccine.
This is the principle of “herd,” “community” or, as the Foo might call it, “congregation” immunity.
Sometimes the virus will mutate or a new strain of influenza will emerge. If you come in contact with a mutated (or a new strain), then your vaccine may not offer you as much protection.
Types of Flu Vaccine
Several versions of the flu vaccine are available, including inactivated vaccines (“killed” virus that protects against several strains of flu) intended for people 6 months or older.
There is also a high-dose “big me” version of flu vaccine intended for people aged 65 or older. These are the up in arms injectable flu shot options.
For those who dislike shots, a nasal spray vaccine with a live attenuated (weakened virus) is approved for ages 2 to 49 (except for those who are pregnant or have certain medical conditions).
Complications of influenza are more common in younger and older age groups. Virtually all children aged 6 months or older should receive a yearly flu vaccine.
For kids younger than age 9 and receiving their first flu vaccines, another round of flu vaccine is recommended four weeks after their initial dose. This booster dose provides enhanced immunity.
Will the Flu Shot Give You the Flu?
The answer is NO. (Insert neverending sigh here.) Although it sometimes has a bad reputation, an inactivated flu vaccine cannot cause you to get sick because it is an empty-handed/killed vaccine.
Sometimes my patients will report a side effect of feeling achy or feverish a day later. You are still better off having a day of mild achiness rather than two weeks of hell.
Keep in mind that the flu vaccine is often given during cold and flu season, so catching a cold virus other than influenza is possible around the same time of year.
Will the Flu Vaccine Prevent Me From Getting “Sick” This Winter?
The answer is also NO. I wish I could promise you’d be completely in the clear. The flu vaccine will reduce the chances of catching influenza, but it will not offer protection against COVID-19, the common cold or stomach viruses (sometimes mislabeled as the “stomach flu”).
Good handwashing, masking indoors and staying away from sick people are the best ways to stay healthy.
When and Where Should You Get the Flu Vaccine?
The time is now. You might want to run, not walk to your nearest doctor’s office, drug store or health fair. In a normal year, we’d love to have everyone vaccinated before the end of October.
Don’t worry, though, there will be enough space for you and your family at upcoming community flu clinics. You won’t need to come back.
Learn to Fly with the Floo Fighters
Hospital capacity and staffing are still recovering from the pandemic. The last thing we need this winter is to be waiting on a war and dealing with influenza and surges in COVID-19.
Don’t be the pretender. Don’t let the flu throw a monkey wrench into your plans. It would be a shame, shame if you miss out on the opportunity to protect yourself and others.
I hope everyone who is eligible will get vaccinated for both COVID-19 and influenza. I can promise you that no son of mine will go without both vaccines.
Instead of saying, “I should have known,” and letting the flu turn you to skin and bones, please be my hero and get yourself vaccinated.
— Dr. Dan Brennan is a board-certified pediatrician at Sansum Clinic, father of three boys, and a Santa Barbara native who will be rocking out to the Foo at the Santa Barbara Bowl on Sept. 28.