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Debunking common misconceptions about flu shots


As California and the rest of the United States trudge through the flu season, more cases of death and complications from the influenza virus are popping up on the news. Every year, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) pleads for the public to get their flu shots starting as early as September to prep for the upcoming flu season. Every flu season, like clockwork, the general public usually does not listen.

In the past 12 months, according to the CDC, only 33.4 percent of adults aged 18-49 received their flu vaccine.

Despite the annual warning from the CDC and grisly predictions from flu scientists, it seems most people just don’t get their flu shots. Last year, the 2017-2018 flu caused 80,000 deaths according to the CDC. The same organization also said, during this same season, only 43.3 percent of adults received a flu vaccine.

The flu can range from a mild inconvenience to a pandemic that can decimate entire countries and generations. And still, the majority of people choose not to get flu vaccinations. At Paly, many people say they don’t get the flu vaccine because they’re either lazy or they underestimate the virus.

However, if people could separate fact from myth regarding common misconceptions about the flu shot, maybe the number of vaccinations would rise.

[divider]What is the flu?[/divider]

“I feel like everyone has had some bad experience with the flu. The symptoms are really bad,” junior Rachael Richmond said. “You can’t get comfortable and you feel nauseous constantly.”

The “flu”, or influenza, is a respiratory viral infection that infects the nose, throat and lungs. It’s categorized as a mild to severe illness by the CDC, but in some rare cases it can kill. Every year, the U.S. experiences a flu season, which lasts from October to as late as May, where influenza incidences rise dramatically. Flu symptoms are similar to the common cold: cough, sore throat, runny nose, but with more headaches, chills and fatigue.

[divider]How is it spread?[/divider]

Influenza is  spread like any respiratory virus: through droplets that infected people release while sneezing, coughing, or even talking. These infected droplets get into another person’s throat or lungs, and that person becomes infected too.

“Flu viruses spread very quickly and easily — through the air in air droplets, especially with coughs and sneezing, through skin contact and surfaces such as doorknobs. We can start spreading them up to 24 hours before we know we are coming down with the flu.”

School Nurse Jennifer Kleckner 

[divider]How do flu shots work?[/divider]

Reluctance to get a flu shot is partly due to a common fundamental misunderstanding of vaccines. Vaccines work by exposing the body to a tiny weakened bit of the disease you’re trying to fight off.

It’s enough of the disease to cause your immune system to generate immunity to it, but not enough to actually infect it. This is also why immunocompromised people are sometimes advised not to get vaccines because their immune system isn’t strong enough to fight off the imitation infection. The flu vaccine works like every other vaccine, except every year before flu season, flu scientists predict what strains of flu will be prevalent that year. Depending on what they find, the CDC recommends the general public get immunized against those predicted strains with a traditional trivalent flu shot, or three-strain flu shot.

This three-strain shot consists of two influenza A viruses, H1N1 and H3N2, and an influenza B virus. With that in mind, here are some of the most common excuses on Paly campus for not getting your flu shot, debunked.

[divider]Misconception #1[/divider]

I’m a healthy young adult. If I’m not really young or really old, I don’t need the flu vaccine.

This is a common misconception, especially for young adults who tend to think they have iron-clad immune systems that can handle anything that gets thrown at them.

Most providers encourage everybody who’s not an infant to get the flu shot, and it’s because the flu, unlike the common cold, has the ability to spread like fire through people and can easily complicate underlying disewases.

“The flu can lead to hospitalization when symptoms become more severe and are complicated by a person’s other underlying health conditions such as asthma, heart disease, pregnancy or other metabolic disorders,” Kleckner said.

Even if you think you can hack out the illness yourself, that doesn’t mean you can’t still spread the virus.

If one gets sick, they might spread it to people who are medically vulnerable, like the elderly or very young children.

“By getting the flu shot, you are helping to protect both yourself and those around you such as your grandmother, a young child or infant, or someone who has other chronic health conditions that would be complicated by getting the flu,” Kleckner said.

[divider]Misconception #2[/divider]

The flu is just a bad cold. I can handle it. I should tough it out and go to school.

Despite sharing similar symptoms, the flu is not just a bad cold: it is a different animal.

The flu can be especially dangerous when it complicates an underlying disease, such as diabetes, asthma, heart disease or sickle cell disease.  According to the CDC, the most common complications of the flu and causes for hospitalization are pneumonia, dehydration, and ear or sinus infections. Colds usually do Wnot result in more serious health problems, while the flu often does.

“Most people, not just students, do not really understand the difference between symptoms of a cold and those of the flu, and that is a concern because flu viruses affect our lung tissues, possibly leading to more serious problems either for ourselves or those more medically vulnerable,” Kleckner said.

The major difference between the two is that the flu virus specifically attacks the lungs while most colds are just upper respiratory infections, according to Kleckner.

That’s why pneumonia, an infection that inflames the air sacs in the lungs, is more often a complication of the flu. In terms of symptoms, according to the CDC, influenza typically makes the body feel more exhausted and universally worse, with symptoms such as fever, aches, chills, fatigue and headache. The common cold, however, is more of a discomfort, with flu-like symptoms being rare and symptoms such as stuffy nose, sneezing and coughing being more common. However, on the off-chance you do get the flu, it can be treated at-home.

“The flu can usually be managed with proper self-care at home, but if recognized early, your doctor can prescribe the antiviral medication Tamiflu, which can help you recover much more quickly,” Kleckner said.

[divider]Misconception #3[/divider]

There’s mercury in the flu shot, which can cause autism.A common excuse from people who don’t get a flu shot is there’s mercury in vaccines.

What most people don’t know is that there are two types of mercury humans are generally exposed to: methylmercury and ethylmercury. Methylmercury is the type of mercury found in some fish, and if it’s ingested in high amounts, can be potentially toxic. Ethylmercury, the kind of mercury used in vaccines, including the flu shot, is much safer because it doesn’t stay in your body or build up in your tissues.

It clears out quickly, which makes it automatically less toxic than its counterpart according to the CDC. The ethylmercury in vaccines is a mercury-based preservative called thimerosal, which is used to prevent the growth of bacteria inside the vaccine. So yes, there is mercury in your annual flu shot, but it’s not nearly enough to hurt you in any capacity besides causing a little swelling at the site of injection.

“The amount of mercury in vaccines is so infinitesimal, the benefits of taking the shot are far outweighed by the risk from mercury.”

School Nurse Jennifer Kleckner

After countless studies over decades, there is no evidence that suggests thimerosal is linked to autism. But still, if you’re really worried, you can get a thimerosal-free vaccine in lieu of the normal one.

[divider]Misconception #4[/divider]

It’s already February. It’s worthless to get a flu shot this late. As long as flu viruses are circulating, which depends on the community, there’s a chance you may get infected.

“The flu seasons usually continues through March and peaks in February.  It’s not too late to get the shot,” Kleckner said.

It takes about 10 days for the vaccine to make any difference, so the sooner you act, the better. Last year, according to the CDC, the flu season stuck around through the beginning May, so it’s definitely better option to get the flu vaccine sooner than later.

“In addition to getting a flu vaccination, our immunity can be improved by getting plenty of sleep, not being overly stressed, eating a balanced diet including fruits and vegetables, and regular exercise,” Kleckner said.”High school is such a stressful time, and it is far too easy to become overextended and overwhelmed. Try to take the long view, and take care of your body so that it can help you.”

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