– by John Schimmelfing, PharmD
The most common questions I, as a pharmacist, get asked about the flu shot are:
“When should I get it?” and “Why should I get it?”.
To address the “when”, the simple answer is that it is recommended to get it as soon as it becomes available, which is typically in late-August to early October, from most medical offices and community pharmacies; look for sites around UNC’s campus beginning September 15th, and beginning in late September, make an appointment with UNC Campus Health Services or walk into CHS Pharmacy (check out http://ehs.unc.edu/flu/ for when/where flu clinics are happening around UNC’s campus). Don’t wait to try to “time it;” you may forget and get it after the flu has begun to spread around, or forget to get it completely. Also, the flu can hit at any time, especially in a community where students from all over the globe are grouped together in tight living and classroom spaces. The peak flu season varies by hemisphere. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends everyone in the USA get their flu shot by October, if possible, but getting it later can still be beneficial. Flu vaccine protection lasts throughout the entire flu season for most people (the protection for elderly adults tends to decline more so than other age groups). Flu vaccine protection does not last throughout multiple years, however, so even if the flu strains present in the vaccine remain the same in consecutive years, it is still important to get your flu shot EVERY year.
A conversation I have far too often with friends and patients involves some rendition of the following:
Them: “But can’t the flu shot give me the flu?”
Them: “Are you sure?”
Think of it this way: if I show you a few doors, radiator, some tires, wheels, leather bucket seats, windshield, tail lights, etc. you will recognize this as a car, but that car is nonfunctional because it does not possess all of its parts and will not be able to run you over; this is the same way the flu vaccine works. The vaccine presents your immune system non-functional pieces of a flu virus so that your body can recognize it and help plan a defense against it should an infection with the full-functioning, attacking virus occur.
The conversation will sometimes continue with:
Them: “But my cousin’s dad’s mom’s grandchild got the flu shot, and then got the flu three days later!”
Me: “Welp, they should have gotten the flu shot earlier; a body takes two full weeks to develop antibodies to combat the flu strains in that year’s flu shot.”
Them: “But my other friend got the flu shot, and then got the flu a couple months later!”
It is known that flu vaccines are not 100% effective, but even if you do happen to get the flu after getting the flu shot, your illness should be milder and for a shorter duration than if you neglected to receive the flu shot at all.
The conversation can then detour:
“But I never get sick, why should I get the flu shot?”
The flu vaccine not only protects you, but also others you come in contact with. Just because you don’t show symptoms doesn’t mean that you don’t have the flu; you can spread it to others without showing physical symptoms. This is important for protecting others who are more at-risk (such as young children, elderly adults, and people with a suppressed immune system) than young, strapping 20-something college students. It is also important to help protect people who may not be able to receive the flu shot due to severe allergies or being younger than 6 months of age.
Other methods to help prevent the spread of the flu virus include:
- Wash hands often with soap and water
- Avoid sharing beverages
- Cover mouth/nose with your sleeve when coughing/sneezing in the “Dracula fashion”
(Graphic borrowed with permission from the University of Arizona)
Other things to keep in mind:
- Get the flu shot.
- If you have ever had Guillain-Barre Syndrome, talk to your doctor before receiving the flu shot.
- If you do get ill, manage symptoms with products recommended by your healthcare provider, rest as much as possible, and drink plenty of fluids (avoid alcohol and caffeine to promote healing and proper rest). Also, antiviral medications (such as Tamiflu) may improve healing time and work best when taken within 48 hours of feeling sick.
- Get the flu shot.
- Side effects: like all medications, the flu vaccine can present some side effects; the most common are: redness, soreness, and inflammation around the injection site that can last for a few days. Some patients can feel a bit “rundown” for a few days, which can be an effect of your body’s immune system ramping up.
- Get the flu shot.
The best way to protect yourself and others from getting the flu is to get the flu shot and encourage others to do so.
For more information, please contact your pharmacist, healthcare provider, and refer to the CDC websites: http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/misconceptions.htm
John Taylor Schimmelfing is a Pharmacist at Campus Health Services. John graduated from Elon before obtaining his PharmD from the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy. He also happens to be a National, World and Junior Olympic jump rope champion, which clearly qualifies him as an expert on all things jump rope related such as whether jump rope is two words or one (it’s two!).