December 1, 2011
By Tracey L. Chavous
Health and Fitness Writer
DC Spotlight Magazine, Healthy Living
As “flu season” draws near, the inevitable and constant debate stems around the effects and side effects of the flu shot and whether it’s healthy and practical to get the shot each year. Annual outbreaks in the United States of the seasonal flu usually occur during the fall through early spring. In a typical year, approximately 5 to 20 percent of the population contracts the seasonal flu. The flu, more scientifically known as influenza, is a highly transmittable respiratory infection caused by influenza viruses.
Currently, there are two types of vaccines: A shot in which inactivated flu virus initiates the immune system to form antibodies to a particular strain of the flu is the most common vaccine. The nasal mist (FluMist) that contains live influenza virus to which the body’s immune system responds is the alternative. This mist is only recommended for healthy people ages 2-49 years who are not pregnant.
Flu symptoms often vary and include a high fever, cough, sore throat, headache, chills, muscle aches, vomiting and fatigue and may develop in to a life threatening case of pneumonia for the elderly or those with compromised immune systems. The most common side effects of the flu shot are fatigue and muscle aches localized in the area where the shot was administered.
Various experts have shared pros and cons on the choice to receive the flu vaccine or not. Based on medical research, getting the flu shot reduces the likelihood of contracting the flu by 70%. This can be particularly important for the most vulnerable populations such as the very young, very old and those low immune systems (with conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and asthma). Other advantages include less doctor visits and absences from work. Flu shots work well if there is a match between the strain of the virus in the vaccine and the virus circulating in your surroundings.
Some cons in receiving the flu shot are that the shot itself does not ensure a flu-free season because the vaccine itself is developed based upon scientists’ assumption of the different types of flu strains that may be airborne during the season of record. The vaccine’s development is generally based on the previous flu seasons and the data collected. Very little data is gathered if little data is reported.
Another disadvantage to the flu shot is that the vaccine contains Themerosol, a highly toxic preservative containing ethyl mercury which has been known to contribute to neurological damage. Researchers argue that this ingredient does not cause detrimental harm to consumers — especially children – nonetheless, the debate is ongoing. Some flu shot clinics boast that they offer a “preservative free” version of the flu shot; however, many clinics do not carry it and it is not always created during each season. Additionally, for those who are allergic to eggs (The shot is cultivated inside chicken eggs.), or have had a previous reaction to the vaccine, this shot is not the best option. The ingredients of the shot contain some allergens that will aggravate reactions in the body. Making informed decisions based on your health needs and preferences are paramount when thinking about optional immunizations.
There are flu clinics in most areas during the fall season and many of them are free. The American Lung Association suggests that patients should consult and follow up with their own healthcare providers about their individual needs for the Flu vaccine and/or questions about side effects and clinic availability. Also, there’s a “flu finder” feature powered by Google which will direct consumers to a flu clinic based on their zip codes. In addition, many state and local Health and Human Services agencies have websites with links that provide flu clinic schedules as well as opportunities to sign up for public health alerts via email or text message. For those with elderly relatives, friends, or neighbors who may not have email accounts or are accustomed to texting, this information can always be shared in person or by phone. Awareness is important despite limited resources.
Many health officials proactively promote realistic steps in the prevention of the spread of flu and many other contagious diseases by encouraging the following good hygiene habits for adults and children:
- Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue or arm; immediately throw away used tissues.
- Wash hands frequently throughout the day for at least 20 seconds with warm, soapy water.
- Stay home from school and work as symptoms such as a fever, coughing, sneezing, runny nose, headache and body aches develop.
Additionally, there are healthy ways to naturally boost your immune system with or without the flu vaccine during the flu season:
- Get quality sleep each night (7-8 hours nightly).
- Limit the intake of highly processed sugary foods and beverages by drinking quality water, teas and homemade broths, eating fresh vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds, fish, high quality meats, poultry and grass fed dairy products.
- Take high quality supplements such as cod liver oil, vitamin C (1000 mg 2-3 times daily, and a well-balanced multi vitamin.
- Get fresh air daily and as much sunlight in the winter as possible (at least 20 minutes daily).
- Indulge in moderate exercise such as walking, biking, aerobic activity 30 minutes 4-5 times weekly.
- Limit exposure to secondhand smoke and other household pollutants (dust, mold and chemical filled cleaning products).
- Limit stressful situations.
The flu vaccine is an option and should not be mandated by your doctor unless you work for a particular government agency or hospital that may require it. Even then, you should have the opportunity to examine your right to choose the vaccine or not. Consider your unique individual health needs and the professional input of your health care providers when making informed decisions about your overall health and well-being.