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Every year when fall rolls around, we hear a lot about the new strains of the flu virus. Health care professionals urge us to get our annual flu shot. But how important is that shot and does it really do any good? Are the shots safe and are there side effects we should know about? There seem to be as many questions as answers when it comes to preventive measures and the flu.

What is the Flu?

Flu is short for Influenza. The disease is a serious respiratory illness in which complications can become serious, even life-threatening. Symptoms range from fever, aching muscles, sore throat and cough, runny or stuffy nose, headache, vomiting and diarrhea.

The disease is highly contagious from the day before symptoms present until five days after symptoms begin. The virus is spread through coughing, sneezing and nasal secretions. Anyone can contract the flu, but children and the elderly are most vulnerable. 

It’s important to be able to recognize symptoms in young children or in the elderly to get them care early in their illness. In children you may notice fast breathing or trouble with breathing. Skin may have a bluish tinge or a rash and children may be excessively fussy and refuse food or liquids. Infants and toddlers may have fewer wet diapers or cry without any tears.

The elderly may also exhibit breathing problems, or pain and pressure in their chest or abdomen. They may report sudden dizziness. They may become confused or have a persistent cough.

What are the Dangers of Getting the Flu?

Influenza is a serious disease. Because the viral strains are in a constant state of change, the affects of the disease vary from year to year. Some years the flu comes in a mild form and very few deaths are associated with it. Other years the strains hit hard and there are thousands of flu-related deaths, especially among the very young and the very old.

What to Do if You Get the Flu

If you do become ill, it’s important to determine whether or not it is influenza in the first forty-eight hours. Your doctor will have antiviral medicines that can be given to decrease the severity of your illness.

If ill, stay home except for seeing your doctor. Avoid contact with others and wash your hands often. If you must go out in public, consider wearing a mask.

How Do Vaccines Work?

When you get a flu shot, you’re introducing a small amount of the virus into your body. Your body then works to build antibodies, the agents that fight off disease. It takes approximately two weeks after receiving the flu shot before your body creates these antibodies. The shot itself does not cause one to become sick with the flu.

What are Possible Side Effects of a Flu Shot?

The controversial issues with flu shots come, not from the virus introduced into our bodies, but rather the preservatives and other ingredients added to them to them. The most dangerous of these is Thimerosal, an agent which contains mercury. Mercury in the human body is associated with many negative side effects including neurological problems, memory loss, kidney problems and stomach disturbances. Not all flu shots have this preservative and you can ask for a version of the shot not containing it. Check with your doctor to be sure you get the best vaccine available.

Flu Shots are Not for Everyone

In some cases people should not take the flu vaccine, or should take it under a doctor’s supervision. Those with severe egg allergies may need a special vaccine that doesn’t contain egg proteins. Those who have had a severe reaction to a previous flu vaccine in the past may not want to take it again.

However, there are categories of people who are particularly at risk for the flu and they should definitely get the vaccine annually. These include people with diabetes, cancer or cancer treatments, Cystic Fibrosis, HIV/Aids, kidney or liver disease or those with asthma. Seriously overweight people are also prime candidates for the vaccine.

Better Safe…

In nearly every case, you doctor will tell you to get your annual flu shot. And even if you do contract a case of the illness, it will be a milder, less serious version. For more information on influenza, the various kinds of vaccines available and all the risk factors, go to the Center for Disease Control at