Did the flu knock you flat last year? Count yourself among the tens of thousands hit by one of the country’s worst flu seasons in 15 years. The rate of flu-related hospitalizations among people 65 and older was the highest since officials began tracking laboratory-confirmed cases in 2005.
How severely the flu will strike this year is impossible to predict, experts say. But the flu strain that predominated last year typically causes more hospitalizations and deaths than others do — and, unfortunately, it’s expected to be one of the strains going around this winter. The best way to protect yourself is no surprise: You need to get vaccinated, and soon.
You wake up and there it is: scratchy throat, headache, a fever of 100 degrees or higher, severe achiness, extreme exhaustion. Influenza usually comes on swiftly, with much more intense and longer-lasting symptoms than a typical cold. Spread through airborne droplets spewed by coughing and sneezing, the flu thrives during the winter, in part because virus particles survive better in drier, colder weather and because people spend more time in enclosed spaces together (offices, schools, homes), making it easier for the virus to spread.
For most of us, the flu lasts a very unpleasant week to 10 days. But for adults 65 and older and children younger than 5, the risk of suffering from serious flu-related complications such as pneumonia and bronchitis are much higher. Indeed, about 90 percent of all flu-related deaths occur in people 65 and older.
Those suffering from chronic illnesses, such as asthma, diabetes, emphysema, heart disease and kidney disease are more vulnerable to flu complications, as are pregnant women. (Experts think that the surge in estrogen and progesterone at the end of a woman’s first trimester causes a reduction in the number of infection-fighting T-cells that circulate in her blood.)
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, everyone (including babies age 6 months and older) should get some form of flu vaccine. Vaccines prevent the illness about 50 to 80 percent of the time in adults younger than 60 and about 40 to 60 percent of the time in those 65 and older. (Older adults’ immune systems respond less strongly to the vaccine.) Those prevention rates may not sound so high, but if you get vaccinated and still come down with the flu, you’ll probably have a milder case, which means less chance of suffering serious complications.
The degree of effectiveness of flu vaccines each year depends on how well the strains of flu virus used to make the vaccines match those that actually emerge. Vaccine producers generally rely on predictions by the World Health Organization, the Food and Drug Administration and CDC about which strains are most likely to circulate next. This year’s standard vaccine is being formulated to trigger immunity to the influenza A (H3N2) strain, which caused so much misery last year, along with two other strains that also circulated widely.
Keep in mind that it takes about two weeks for the vaccine to trigger the buildup of virus antibodies that provide you with protection, so the sooner you get inoculated, the better. Typically, the vaccine protects you for six to eight months.
Vaccine side effects are uncommon and usually mild; they consist of soreness or redness at the injection site, body aches and/or a low fever lasting a day or two. Doctors have reported rare cases of serious allergic reactions to flu vaccines. But Consumer Reports’ medical consultants say that the protection against illness, hospitalization and death far outweighs the risks.
The best, most effective choice for most people is the standard vaccine. But there are other options that may be good choices for some people.
Several of those options have, for the first time this year, come out as “quadrivalent,” meaning that they trigger immunity to four viral strains rather than the standard three, potentially providing broader protection. Those vaccines may not be available everywhere this flu season because manufacturers are still ramping up production. Check with your doctor to see if it’s vital for you to receive a quadrivalent vaccine or if the standard version is sufficient.
Here are some other options and who might be good candidates for them:
For people afraid of needles: FluMist, Fluzone Intradermal. FluMist is a nasal spray. Fluzone Intradermal uses a tiny needle to inject vaccine just under the skin, not deep into the muscle as is required for standard flu shots. FluMist is approved for ages 2 to 49, Fluzone for those ages 18 to 64.
For adults with egg allergies: FluBlok. Made with a genetically engineered insect virus rather than grown in chicken eggs (the way the standard vaccine is prepared).
For further guidance, go to www.ConsumerReports.org/Health, where more detailed information, including CR’s ratings of prescription drugs, treatments, hospitals and healthy-living products, is available to subscribers.