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How to Beat the Flu This Year

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Flu Shot Q&A

Experts answer all of your flu shot questions.

Is this really the year to get a flu shot?

Yes. The vaccine is the number one way to prevent the flu -- and the fever, aches and pains, chills, sore throat, cough, and fatigue that come with it. Not only that, but by getting inoculated, you help create a "circle of immunity" that protects others, says Bruce Hirsch, MD, an infectious-disease specialist at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York. Think of it this way: "You're protecting your kids, your grandma, everyone at work from getting the flu," says Neil Fishman, MD, director of the department of healthcare epidemiology and infection control and director of the antimicrobial management program at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center. Maybe your coworker in the next cubicle has just gotten pregnant. Or the stranger sitting beside you at the movies has diabetes. You can be infectious for a couple of days before showing symptoms, so you might infect people before you even know you're sick.

If enough people get vaccinated, they can create something germ experts call "herd immunity," a resistance that spreads throughout a whole community. "When influenza hits in a particular area, it's dependent on finding vulnerable hosts," says Dr. Hirsch. "If the majority of people are immune, it's very hard for the virus to rip through the population."

Is the shot my only option?

No. The vaccine comes in two forms: the injectable kind and an inhalable variety, called FluMist. Both versions can take up to three weeks to become effective. They work by tricking your body into thinking it's been bombarded by the real thing. Your system then produces antibodies that remain in the bloodstream for the flu season, which typically runs from October to March. "The antibodies prevent the virus from going inside your cells," says Thomas Breithaupt, PhD, a professor of biochemistry at Des Moines University-Osteopathic Medical Center in Iowa.

FluMist, which has been available since 2003, may offer even more protection than the injectable variety: It stimulates antibodies in the nasal secretions, as well as in the bloodstream, making it extremely difficult for the virus to enter your body. In practice, doctors say, both types of vaccines offer adequate protection. FluMist is currently approved for people between 5 and 49. However, pregnant women or others with compromised immune systems should avoid FluMist because it contains live viruses that have been weakened, says Dr. Wenzel. "There's little risk, but it's a cautionary approach."

Some people say that the vaccine can give you the flu. Is that true?

No. While there are all kinds of people who claim they got the shot and as a result got the flu, such a thing is nearly impossible, says Brian Currie, MD, senior medical director at New York City's Montefiore Medical Center. That's because there's no live virus in the flu shot, and while FluMist does contain a live virus, it's modified and hasn't been reported to cause the flu. So how did this myth start? The vaccine can cause side effects, including aches or a low-grade fever, as your immune system gears up to protect you. But you won't catch full-fledged influenza from it. Promise.

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