The Flu

The Flu by Alexander Hwang

The following article talks a little about the difference between the flu and the common cold, as well as the flu shot itself.

What exactly are you getting when you are injected with a flu shot? Well, you’re receiving a vaccination for the seasonal influenza of course! However, don’t mistake it for your common cold.  Influenza is very different from the common cold, and this difference is important. Both may have similar symptoms, but the common cold is much gentler. Generally, someone with the common cold suffers from maybe a sore throat, a stuffy or runny nose, and some coughing fits; only in bad cases may people get a mild fever. Furthermore, colds only last a few days.

Influenza, on the other hand, can last anywhere from a few days to a couple weeks.  It can cause high fevers, body aches, fatigue, chills, coughs, vomiting, or diarrhea, as well as pneumonia, bronchitis, infection of the sinuses and ears, and death. According to the CDC, the average number of flu-related deaths per influenza season in the U.S. from 2000 to 2006 was around 32,500, which lands us at around 11 deaths per 100,000 people (based on the average population size of those years). Don’t let that scare you too much though, because only about 0.4% of those deaths were from the age group younger than 19.

Now, should you get a flu shot? Probably, but it’s up to you. The flu shot is made of safe, “dead” viruses that merely stimulate your immune system to build up antibodies against the live virus; the nasal spray employs weakened viruses instead. The vaccination cannot give you the flu itself, but can cause soreness (from the shot), and possibly mild symptoms, including small fevers or aches. These symptoms (signs that your body is actually responding to the vaccine) usually last only one to two days and are much less severe than the symptoms caused by the illness itself. The nasal spray may cause similar symptoms, in addition to congestion, coughs, sore throat, or weakness. The vaccination takes two weeks to ensure the body is fully protected, so if people say they got the flu from the flu shot, it’s either because: a) they contracted the influenza virus during this two week period, b) actually got the common cold, not the flu, c) were infected with a rare strain of the virus, or d) are really old and have a weakened immune system that did not receive a properly dosed vaccination.

The benefits of the flu shot definitely outweigh the disadvantages. Even though the influenza vaccine was shown to be associated with an increased risk of Guillain-Barré syndrome in 1976, the CDC estimated that among vaccinated people the risk of dying from this syndrome was only 1 case per 100,000 higher than among the non-vaccinated. The chance of a person dying from influenza is estimated to be ten times this amount, as mentioned before. [Guillain-Barré syndrome causes a person’s immune system to attack his or her nerve cells, which can lead to paralysis. Most recover fully after a few weeks, but some may die or suffer permanent nerve damage. The average background rate (regardless of vaccinations) for developing GBS in the U.S. is 3,000 – 6,000 people per year.]

Ultimately, getting a flu shot is more likely to help than hurt. You have a smaller chance of getting the flu, and even if you do, you’ll exhibit milder symptoms. Getting vaccinated also means that you’ll be less likely to spread the virus around the school, or, during the holidays, around your family.

Now if any of this was poorly written or confusing, I apologize. Here’s the gist of things: the flu shot vaccinates people against influenza, which is different from, and much more serious than, the common cold. Some have associated the flu shot with a higher risk of GBS, but the extent of this risk is highly debatable. Even if this association is considered significant, the risk of contracting influenza and dying from causes related to the illness is higher than the risk for GBS (which can easily be recovered from). However, don’t use this article as a definitive guide or let it pressure you into doing something you are uneasy about. Statistics can be misleading, and it’s best that you do some of your own research before making a decision. Remember that if you are young, healthy, and active, you probably won’t need the protection against influenza as much as someone who is elderly and possesses an already compromised immune system.

This being said, flu season is still ongoing (it generally runs from October to around March, peaking around January or February), and you could benefit from a vaccination. It might also help to know that since the vaccine has been out for around a few months, the CDC has had more time to monitor any potential problems with the vaccine by observing the people who have already been vaccinated. And conveniently, now is a great time to get vaccinated, for the week of December 8 to December 14 is National Influenza Vaccination Week!

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One response to “The Flu

  1. Pingback: November/December 2013 | The Bolt·

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