12/11/2014 09:39 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2015

Uh Oh, It's Flu Season! What You Need to Know About Flu Vaccination

Media reports from just about every corner of the country are cautioning that Americans could be in for a particularly intense flu season this year, with many medical experts encouraging folks not to delay getting their flu shots. The flu season is not only here -- it could last until as late as May of next year according to the CDC.

With this in mind, it is helpful to review a few basics that could help keep you, your family and your friends and neighbors feeling at their best during this winter's seasonal outbreaks of the flu.

Who's at Risk?
The flu is a respiratory infection that can cause serious, sometimes life-threatening complications for older adults, children and people with weakened immune systems. Getting a flu shot is one of the best ways to protect from serious flu-related illness.

Influenza is a serious infection that can lead to hospitalization and even death in some individuals. Just because you are young and healthy doesn't mean that the flu can't cause you to become very sick or spread your illness to others.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends "universal" flu vaccination annually for everyone six months of age or older. Pregnant women and people with chronic conditions are at increased risk for complications from flu, so anyone with asthma, cancer, COPD, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, kidney or liver disease, cystic fibrosis or obesity should talk to their health care provider about getting a flu shot -- without delay.

Those of us in the home health care field know how important it is to protect our vulnerable patients from the flu and its complications. The risk of dying from the flu drastically increases for those over the age of 65. Today, many businesses, especially health service organizations like Partners in Care and the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, where I work, offer free flu shots to employees in order to protect the public and clients they serve.

AARP reports that people aged 18 to 64 who are needle shy might want to ask about a new tiny needle that delivers vaccine through the skin instead of muscle tissue, and seniors 65 and older might want to consider a high-dose vaccine for added protection.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that all pregnant women get the flu shot, stating that "recently published safety data regarding influenza vaccination during pregnancy continue to be reassuring."

The best defense against the flu is the flu vaccine.

To Your Benefit

  • Simply put -- The vaccine helps to protect you from getting the flu and can help keep the flu from spreading widely in your workplace and community.
  • The vaccine doesn't guarantee that you won't get the flu, but if you still do get it, the vaccine may make your illness milder.
  • It is important to remember that getting a flu shot helps protect people around you -- family, friends, colleagues -- who might be more at risk for complications from the flu than you are.
  • For those with chronic health conditions such as heart disease, chronic lung disease and diabetes the vaccine is an important preventative tool to avoid hospitalization.

These and other key facts can be found at:

Who Should Not Get the Vaccine:

Getting a flu shot is not the best course of action for everyone. There are some people who should not get the shot, and for anyone who is uncertain, I'd recommend speaking with your doctor or another qualified health professional to determine what is right for you. Here are general guidelines offered by the CDC about who should NOT get flu shots:

  • Children younger than six months cannot get the vaccine
  • Anyone with an allergy to eggs or other ingredients in this vaccine, such as antibiotics or gelatin should avoid the common vaccine
  • If you have an allergy to eggs, consult your doctor, there are some products on the market without eggs involved in the production, such as Flublok, which was approved by the CDC last year
  • If you have ever suffered from Guillain-Barré Syndrome, consult your doctor before getting the vaccine
  • If you are not feeling well at the time you may want to avoid or postpone getting the vaccine, but again talk to your doctor

For individuals 2 years of age through age 49, there is an approved nasal spray flu vaccine that may be a viable alternative to getting the flu shot. This is not an option for anyone who has taken influenza antiviral drugs within the previous 48 hours, anyone with history of severe allergic reaction to any component of the vaccine, pregnant women or anyone with a weakened immune system. We recommend that people speak with their doctors before taking the nasal flu vaccine, and again, the CDC provides comprehensive guidelines here:

Common Flu Shot Myths:

Three common themes come up just about every year for me and my staff who serve homebound seniors and families of all ages throughout the metropolitan New York area. You've likely heard these as well, but because they ALWAYS come up, I wanted to share them again for anyone who might not know.

"I got the flu vaccine last year, I don't need it again this year."
Nope. That's incorrect. You need a new flu shot every season. The formula for the flu vaccine is new every year because the virus changes over time and vaccines are formulated each year for the season's anticipated most common strains of the virus. In addition, the body's immune response from the last vaccine wears off over time.

"I heard the flu shot can give you the flu."
Also incorrect. This may be the most common misconception. A flu shot cannot cause flu illness. There may be some side effects to the shot such as soreness, redness or swelling around the injection site and some people have experienced low-grade fever, headache and muscle aches but this is usually NOT the flu, just a reaction to the vaccine.

"I waited 'til December, it's too late to get the vaccine now."
Once again, not correct. The flu vaccine is still beneficial and can help keep you flu-free until the spring when flu season is over. Even if you've waited, get it as soon as you can.

Where Can I Find a Flu Shot?

There are many ways to access a free or low cost flu shot. As I mentioned above, where I work, we offer free flu shots to all of our employees. We do this as a part of a requirement by New York State for health care agencies and because, more importantly, it helps protect the health of our patients and staff. Some workplaces will offer flu shots to employees, so check with your company. You can also look to community centers, senior centers, health fairs and pharmacies. Many large pharmacy chains offer low cost flu shots. In addition, you can always ask your physician or nurse about providing you with a flu shot. I've been seeing signs for flu shots just about everywhere it seems. There are options out there!

I hope this has been helpful in alleviating confusion about the flu vaccine, and if you are eligible to receive it, and haven't yet, remember, it's not too late!