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Flu Shot: Do I Need One?

Posted 09/23/2008

The quick answer is, probably yes.

Influenza (Italian: influence, a reference to the fact that the disease has always occurred in recognizable epidemics) makes its appearance virtually every winter and may last as long as spring. The biggest believers in flu immunization are those who’ve been through one bad flu episode. No one wants a second.

The best time to get your flu shot is right now–mid-September, October, and November–to be protected if the flu peaks with its usual timing in January and February.

A flu epidemic is triggered by a specific virus, usually named for where the virus first appeared. Because of international air travel, infections spread around the globe at jet speed. The virus itself changes just enough each year to outsmart the previous year’s vaccine, so the formula you receive in your 2008 flu shot is based on the work of scientists trying to second guess Mother Nature. Some years, their guess is better than others.

Once an urban area is hit, flu spreads quickly. If it infects someone in your office, dorm, or family, you may awaken one morning with a little sore throat and muscle achiness that progress, often in just a few hours, to a fever, deep cough, headache, shaking chills, fiery sore throat, and profound sense of fatigue.

The difference between a bad cold and the flu is one of degree. With a bad cold, symptoms are surface–runny nose, scratchy throat, congestion–but never anything internal. You’re annoyed but rarely wiped out by a cold. No fever or chills, no muscle aches. Generally, with a cold, if you weren’t spraying mucous over your keyboard and your throat didn’t hurt, you could function. With the flu, you can barely read a book, the Home Shopping Network is too complicated to watch, and you just want to remain immobile except for a few sips of hot tea.

You can probably tell that I’ve had the flu. That’s why I always get a flu shot. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) lists groups that should be immunized, but as broad as their list is it’s still too restrictive in my view. In a nutshell, the HHS includes every child over 6 months and under 18, adults over 50, and anyone in between who might get pregnant or who has a long-term health problem (heart disease, lung disease, etc). Their list also includes caregivers and household contacts of children under five and people over 50.

To that list, I would add:
• Those with weak immune systems If you know your immune system isn’t as strong as you’d like it to be — maybe you get every cold going around — get a flu shot.

• Patients with susceptibility to low-serotonin disorders, such as depression, generalized anxiety, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and chronic headaches. Remember, serotonin acts as a stress buffer. Low-serotonin people are more susceptible to the ravages of stress, which damps down your immune system.

• People who are simply stressed out If you’re under a lot of stress (economic, relationship, anything), your immune system is probably not at its peak. Get a flu shot.

• Living/working with a lot of exposure to other human beings, remembering that most of them occasionally forget to cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze. When patients ask me how they got the flu, I ask if they’d ridden on a full elevator, been on a packed bus, or shopped a crowded store. Flu spreads easily via droplet transmission, which is a nice way of saying all it takes is one person to cough or sneeze in your direction.

Just about everyone can tolerate the flu shot. The ubiquitous “egg warning” refers to serious egg allergies (hives, asthma), not an egg sensitivity in which your digestive system is upset by eating eggs.

Get your shot wherever it’s convenient. We administer the same vaccine you get at work and in many drug stores. WholeHealth Chicago patients can pop into the office anytime Monday through Thursday for a shot–ask for my assistant Liz. Please call first, just to make sure we haven’t exhausted our supply.

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