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Influenza (Flu)

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At least 20 million people, died in the 1918 influenza pandemic. You're especially at risk if you are an older adult, have diabetes, chronic cardiovascular or lung disease, or an impaired immune system.


To help prevent any illness, eat right, get enough sleep, exercise regularly and wash your hands often. In the case of influenza, you can also protect yourself by getting a flu shot each fall. Flu shots need to be updated every year because the strains of viruses that cause the disease change frequently. In addition, if you're at high risk, try to avoid crowds when flu season is at its peak.

The best time to be immunized is between mid-October and mid-November. This allows your immunity to peak during the height of the influenza season, which is generally December through March. Adults receive the vaccine in one injection. Children under age 9 who are receiving the vaccine for the first time need two separate injections about a month apart. It takes one to two weeks after you've been vaccinated for the shot to take effect.

But the flu vaccine isn't foolproof. Its effectiveness varies from year to year and from one person to another. Since the strains used in the vaccine are chosen nine months before a particular flu season, there's a slight chance the strains may change before the flu season actually starts.

In addition, if you're young and healthy, the vaccine may be 70 percent to 90 percent effective in preventing illness. But if you are an older adult or have a chronic medical condition, the vaccine may not be as protective. Still, for older adults who are at high risk, a flu shot can reduce hospitalizations by as much as 70 percent and deaths by 85 percent.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend flu shots for children ages 6 months to 2 years, for adults age 50 and older, and for anyone with an impaired immune system or a serious illness such as chronic heart or lung disease, kidney disease, diabetes, or sickle cell anemia. Also get vaccinated if you're a health care worker, police officer or firefighter.

You may worry about contracting flu from the vaccine. But the vaccine is made from an inactivated form of the virus, so you can't get the flu from a flu shot. In some cases, however, you may have a slight reaction to the shot, such as soreness at the injection site, mild muscle aches or fever beginning six to 24 hours after you've been immunized. These symptoms may last one to two days and are more likely to occur in children who've never been exposed to the flu virus.

If you're allergic to eggs, you probably shouldn't have a flu shot. Because the viruses are grown in chicken eggs, you may have an allergic reaction. If you're pregnant, wait until after your first trimester to be immunized, unless your doctor advises you otherwise.

In addition to getting a flu shot from your doctor, you can be vaccinated at public health centers and many pharmacies. In some areas, flu shots are also available at senior or community centers.

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This information is provided for general medical education purposes only and is not meant to substitute for the independent medical judgment of a physician relative to diagnostic and treatment options of a specific patient's medical condition.
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