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It’s time for me to make my annual plea for everyone to get their flu shot. In today’s column, I’d like to answer common questions I hear about influenza and the flu shot.

– Can’t I get the flu from the flu shot?

This is a very common myth and proven to be wrong. You cannot catch the flu from the flu vaccine. The flu vaccines that are given by needle are made with viruses that are killed (inactivated), and cannot cause an influenza infection.

– I’ve had the flu shot previously and I got the flu anyhow.

This is possible, but not likely, in that no vaccine is 100 percent effective.

– I’ve never had a flu shot and have never had the flu.

Consider yourself lucky, and as in most cases, one’s luck will usually wear out. Don’t take a chance, this could be the year.

– The flu is no big deal.

Tell that to those who have not survived a bout of influenza, or to the worker who misses a week or more of work, as well as the student missing time from school. Besides, having the flu can make you feel very miserable.

– I worry that it could be harmful to my baby/child to have yet another vaccination.Babies have a higher incidence of death due to influenza. There is no proof that the flu vaccine worsens or changes the effects of the other routine childhood vaccinations. The recommendation is that everyone from six months of age and older should receive the flu vaccine.

– I have already gave a chronic disease and I take lots of medications. Do I really need a flu shot too?

All the more reason to receive a flu shot since the flu is the most deadly for those with chronic medical conditions.

– I have a tremendous fear of getting a shot.

The flu vaccine is available as a nasal spray and is approved for those between the ages of 2 to 49 years of age. It has been proven to be more effective than the shot in children 2 to 8 years of age. The viruses used to develop the nasal spray flu vaccine are alive but weakened (attenuated).

– I’m pregnant, won’t a flu shot harm my baby?

Not only has the flu vaccine injection been proven to be safe during pregnancy, but is highly recommended for pregnant women in any trimester of pregnancy. Only the injection form of flu vaccine and not the nasal spray should be used in pregnancy.

– I’m 35 years old and healthy, do I really need a flu shot?

In 2009-10, the swine flu (H1N1 virus) took a particularly heavy toll on the age group 18 to 64 years of age. Better safe than sorry.

– Any reason I absolutely shouldn’t get a flu shot?

There are a few reasons, the most common being a prior allergic reaction to a flu shot or a severe allergy to eggs. The vaccine should be delayed if you have an illness with a fever.

– When should I get the shot?

The flu season typically begins as early as October and can last until late spring. Flu shots are currently available and I advise getting it sooner rather than later. It takes about two weeks after receiving the shot for it to become effective.

– Where can I get a flu shot?

Most major pharmacies such as Rite Aid, Walgreens and CVS, provide flu shots on a drop- in basis, as well as through most primary care doctor’s offices. Larger medical groups such as mine, the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, will have special drop in flu clinic days. For children, call your child’s primary care provider to find out how they are to receive a flu vaccination.

– How much will a flu shot cost me?

For most people it is free, either because they have a government insurance plan such as MediCare or MediCruz, or they have private insurance. For those who have no such coverage, the out-of-pocket cost of flu vaccine is between $30 to $50 depending on which vaccine is given.

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It’s that time of year again to start making preparations for the flu season, which can begin as early as October and last as late as May.

Influenza, the name of the virus for which the “flu” season is named, causes a highly contagious respiratory infection that often starts very quickly and may cause the following symptoms:

– Fever, headache and extreme fatigue

– Cough, sore throat and runny or stuffy nose

– Body aches and sometimes vomiting and diarrhea

The flu can cause mild to severe illness and occasionally can lead to death. Most healthy people who contract the flu recover without complications. However, some people, especially the elderly and the very young, as well as those with chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and asthma, are at a high risk for serious complications of the flu. One of the most deadly side effects of the flu is pneumonia, which is a very serious lung infection.

The flu usually spreads from person to person via respiratory droplets when someone who is ill coughs or sneezes. It also often spreads when a person touches some object that has the influenza virus on it and then touches the mouth, nose or eyes.

A person coming down with the flu is contagious from one day before any symptoms appear and remains contagious for up to five days after the symptoms begin.

The best way to prevent getting influenza is to get a flu vaccination. The vaccine is approved for use in people older than 6 months of age. Almost everyone can benefit from the flu shot, but it is highly recommended for the following groups:

– Pregnant women and children younger than 5 years

– People 50 years of age and older and those with chronic medical conditions

– Those who live in nursing homes or other long-term care facilities

– People who work or live with those at high risk for complications of the flu

The flu shot contains a dead virus which, when injected via a needle in the arm, will cause a person’s immune system to create antibodies to help prevent one from getting infected. This vaccine cannot give anyone the flu, but it can cause side effects of soreness, redness or swelling at the injection site, low-grade fever and aches. These side effects are usually very mild and last only a few days. In extremely rare instances, a severe reaction may occur, as is possible with any vaccination or medical procedure. Don’t get vaccinated if you have a severe allergy to chicken eggs, have ever had a bad reaction to a flu shot or are ill with a fever.

Flu shots are already available at many doctors’ offices and also are being conveniently provided by the local pharmacies CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid for about $30 cash, with Medicare and some private insurance accepted.

I think of the flu shot as being a form of cheap health insurance. I’ve already gotten mine and hope that you will, too.

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There’s an abundance of hype in the media these days concerning the safety and necessity of the H1N1 swine flu vaccine.

There are those who oppose any type of immunization, those who believe in conspiracy theories and those who just don’t trust science-based medicine. And, of course, there are many individuals who have a justifiable worries about anything that is new and possibly not adequately tested.

The fact is that this H1N1 vaccine uses the same technology, processes and facilities that are used to make the yearly seasonal flu vaccine, which, over the past 30 years, has proven to be reliable and safe.

The H1N1 vaccine has been tested extensively, and so far, no significant side effects have been noted. The only difference between this vaccine and the yearly flu vaccine is that the H1N1 vaccine targets a different strain of the influenza virus.

We must remember that any time a new drug or therapy is tested on thousands of individuals, it eventually comes to market to treat millions of people. Overall, we have a very good track record of providing new drugs to those who benefit greatly from them.

Smallpox, which was a scourge of the world, has been virtually eliminated by a vaccine. Polio, measles, mumps and rubella have been controlled where vaccinations are available.

Physicians constantly grapple with the concept of risk versus benefit when treating patients. As with life in general, there are no absolute guarantees in medicine, but I believe the benefit of preventing complications from H1N1 flu outweighs the risk of the vaccine itself.

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Most of us have been asked at our doctor’s office when we last had a tetanus shot.

In my most recent column, I wrote about abrasion and laceration injuries and mentioned the need to get a tetanus shot if necessary.

But when to get it, and just what is tetanus? The answer to the second part of that question is that tetanus is a severe disease caused by a toxin produced by the bacteria Clostridium tetani, which produces stiffness and spasms of skeletal muscles. It often begins in the muscles of the jaw, hence the name “lockjaw.” Years ago, people could die from tetanus because of the jaw locking, leaving them unable to eat or breathe.

Fortunately, in this age of modern medicine, tetanus infections can be successfully cured.

The tetanus germ is actually quite fragile. It cannot live in the presence of oxygen and does not survive well outside the human body. It does, however, produce spores that are extremely resistant to adverse conditions. These spores are widely distributed in soil and in the intestines of many domestic and farm animals. The spores can also be found on skin surfaces as well as on many inanimate objects.

The tetanus germ itself is not harmful, but it produces one of the most potent poisons known. This toxin is what causes the muscle spasms. Tetanus is not contagious from person to person, and antibiotics are ineffective, as they have no effect on the harmful toxin.

The tetanus bacterium enters the body through a wound which might be major or minor. The incubation period ranges from three to 21 days, and symptoms usually are observable within days. The deeper the wound, the less oxygen is present, allowing the tetanus spores to proliferate, spreading the toxin throughout the bloodstream.

Tetanus may follow puncture wounds, especially by stepping on a nail. A rusty nail is only slightly more dangerous than a non-rusty nail, and only because its surface is rougher and a little more likely to harbor germs. Burns, bites and even minor scratches can also lead to tetanus. Occasionally, the victim might not even recall a preceding injury.

Tetanus immunization came of age during World War II. Tetanus fatalities fell from thousands per year to just 20 cases, as of the last report in 2003. Almost all reported cases of tetanus are in those who have never been vaccinated or those who were properly vaccinated but have not had a booster in the preceding 10 years.

Routine tetanus immunization begins after birth at 2 months and is continued with a series of four doses with a booster at about 5 years of age, prior to entering school. From then on, a booster is needed every 10 to maintain adequate protection.

Receiving a booster sooner than necessary is not harmful. Better safe than sorry.

Tetanus vaccination is almost 100 percent effective and, unlike the old horse serum used years ago, the new variety being used rarely causes serious reactions. The most common problem for some after receiving the tetanus shot is soreness, with occasional redness and swelling around the injection site. This will resolve on its own and is not an allergic reaction.

If you have an open wound:

  • Clean the wound appropriately.
  • Get a tetanus vaccination as soon as possible if: You’ve never had one before; If the wound is very dirty and deep and your last booster was more than five years ago; If the wound is relatively clean and minor and your last booster was more than 10 years ago.
  • Have your health care provider keep you updated with 10-year booster immunizations, even during a routine office visit.

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