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Doctors say now is the time to get your flu vaccine

Influenza is a nasty virus that ends with thousands of people hospitalized or dying every year, but the flu vaccine can prevent many people from becoming ill, according to Dr. Stephen E. Scranton, who specializes in allergy and immunology for Kaiser Permanente of the Mid-Atlantic. He follows national recommendations that call for almost everyone 6 months and older to be immunized, and he said now is the time.

Who should get a flu shot, and why is it important?

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The flu is a serious viral illness estimated to affect up to 20 percent of the U.S. population every year, causing an average of more than 200,000 flu-related hospitalizations and 24,000 flu-related deaths. Everyone 6 months of age and older is recommended to get the 2015-2016 flu vaccine, with rare exceptions.

How long does flu season last?

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Flu activity tends to peak in late December. However, influenza seasons are unpredictable from year to year. In the 2009-2010 flu season, infection rates were at their highest in October, but this past year we were still seeing significant rates of infection well into the spring. This really shows the importance of receiving your flu shot as soon as it is available and emphasizes that vaccination should continue throughout the season.

Last year wasn't a good match for the flu viruses out there, so is it better this year?

Influenza activity is monitored year-round in 142 centers all over the world. The virus strains included in the flu vaccine are reviewed each year and updated if needed, based on which flu viruses are being seen. Although 90 percent of the time flu experts correctly predict which flu strains will be most common during the season, there may be years when there is not a good match between the vaccine virus strains and what flu strains are actually circulating during influenza season later in the year. The most recent surveillance information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that the 2015-2016 flu vaccine is a good match for the influenza virus strains this season. However, even if there is not a great match between vaccine strains and the circulating virus, flu immunization can still give some protection against influenza and its severe complications.

What happens to healthy people when they get the flu, and are some people more vulnerable?

The flu can make anyone sick, even otherwise healthy people. Roughly 50 percent of people infected with the flu will have the classic symptoms of fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Some people, especially children, may also have vomiting and diarrhea. These symptoms typically last two to three days, rarely more than five days. Some people are at much higher risk for serious complications or death, including those over 65 years old, children [under 3], pregnant women and [people] with certain chronic medical problems such as asthma, COPD, diabetes, heart disease, obesity or weakened immune systems. It is worth noting that 30 percent of people ages 50 through 64 have at least one medical condition that puts them at higher risk for flu-related complications or death. The risk of hospitalization for influenza-related complications is four times higher for pregnant women than non-pregnant women. Persons 65 years of age and older account for roughly 90 percent of flu-related deaths, so this is a particularly vulnerable group.

What are the side effects from the vaccine? Can you get the flu from the vaccine?

Most people don't have any significant side effects from the flu vaccine, and when side effects do occur, they are usually very mild. The most common side effects from the flu shot are soreness, redness, tenderness or swelling where the injection is given. Those who receive the nasal spray flu vaccine (available only for healthy persons between 2 and 49 years of age) may also experience a runny nose or nasal congestion. More rarely, other symptoms such as low-grade fever, headaches and muscle aches can occur with any flu vaccine. More serious flu vaccine adverse effects, including allergic reactions, are extremely rare. One's risk of being struck by lightning is much higher than one's risk of experiencing any serious immunization reaction. The flu shot contains an inactivated [killed] virus, and the nasal spray flu vaccine contains an attenuated [weakened] version of the virus; neither can cause flu illness.

Can you prevent the flu?

The flu vaccine is the very best way to protect yourself and others around you from the serious consequences of the flu. No vaccine can protect against illness perfectly, and therefore the flu vaccine does not prevent the flu for everyone. But if you do get the flu despite getting the vaccine, your illness is generally much milder. Repeated studies have shown that flu vaccination reduces flu illnesses, doctor visits, and missed work or school due to the flu, and most importantly prevents many flu-related hospitalizations and deaths. I encourage everyone to get vaccinated for the flu now, as it takes about two weeks after vaccination for the flu shot to provide protection. Even if you don't have a regular doctor or nurse, the vaccine is available throughout the community, including local pharmacies and grocery stores. Here in Baltimore, Kaiser Permanente members can receive their free flu vaccine simply by walking into any of our medical centers when they're open and get the flu shot on the spot. No appointment is needed through Nov. 1.

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