If there is anything we have learned from previous years, it’s that flu season is unpredictable. However, getting your flu shot now offers the best protection for the entire season, according to an expert at Baylor College of Medicine.
“It’s difficult to predict the duration and intensity of the flu season, but we know that it will be here and it will have a significant health impact on everyone,” said Dr. Pedro A. Piedra, professor of molecular virology and microbiology and of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine.
This year’s flu vaccine includes two updated components to better reflect what flu strains may be circulating this year, the influenza A H1N1 and the influenza A H3N2 components.
The ability to predict what strains will circulate each flu season is not perfect, Piedra said, and, at times, the vaccines don’t match well with what is circulating. Despite that, influenza vaccines can have a significant impact on the health of an individual as well as the health of the community, he said.
During last year’s flu season, multiple viruses circulated. Flu vaccines contain three or four components to protect against multiple viruses.
“You could be infected early in the flu season and still be susceptible to other influenza viral infections because they can be entirely different, which is why it is always best to be vaccinated before the flu season begins. That’s when you will get the best protection,” Piedra said. “Vaccines work best when they are delivered prior to the flu season because it will provide duration of protection through the full season.”
Recently, researchers found that the traditional, egg-based influenza vaccine may not protect well against the H3N2 strain, so Piedra recommends seeking out the vaccines that are made from insect cell lines or mammalian cell lines, which may offer better protection against the H3N2 strain and provide comparable protection against the other influenza viruses (influenza A H1N1 and influenza B strains).
Because the flu vaccine is administered at a time when other viral infections are circulating, some people may feel like they have a cold right around the time they receive the vaccine. However, Piedra, who also is with Texas Children’s Hospital, said that it is not related to the vaccine. It’s most likely that they were ill with another virus at the time they were vaccinated and didn’t know. Some individuals will have soreness or redness at the site of injection. Mild to moderate local reactions are associated with the influenza vaccine. Overall, influenza vaccines are well tolerated and safe in children, adults, pregnant women and older adults.
There can be breakthrough infection, and antivirals are available for those who become infected with the flu virus. Antivirals need to be started within 48 hours of the onset of illness to get the full benefit.
For high-risk individuals, such as older adults or children less than 5 years of age or children and adults with asthma, heart disease, diabetes or other health conditions, Piedra recommends reaching out to their physician before the influenza season on how to best use antiviral drugs if they are infected with the flu. He recommends that they have a plan with their physician on how to get the antiviral drug within 24 hours of the onset of illness.