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It is that time of year again to promote the health benefits of the influenza vaccine. Getting vaccinated is even more important than usual because of the current COVID-19 pandemic. While getting a flu vaccine will not protect against COVID-19, since it does help prevent flu and flu-related illnesses it stands to reason that the vaccine will help to keep you safer this autumn and winter.

In spite of annual exhortations to receive the flu vaccine, most years less than 50% of eligible adults receive the vaccine. Therefore, it is worthwhile to review the important reasons one should receive the vaccine.

Most importantly, the flu vaccine is the most effective way to prevent influenza, in conjunction with social distancing and handwashing. For any of you who have ever had the flu and know how sick it can make you, it is obvious that one would want to avoid going through that experience again. In addition, influenza can cause very serious cases of pneumonia which can be life threatening. A simple annual vaccine can greatly improve one’s chances of avoiding this illness.

Though the flu vaccine is recommended for almost all people over the age of 6 months, it is especially important for individuals who are over the age of 50, have chronic conditions such as diabetes, asthma, emphysema, or heart or kidney disease. In addition, pregnant people should receive the vaccine, as well as most, if not all, health care workers.

It is necessary to get the vaccine yearly, because the flu virus has the potential to mutate from year to year, and therefore the composition of the vaccine often changes from year to year. The best time to get the vaccine is in the fall season, usually September or October. Although the vaccine is not 100% effective, most years there is a 50% to 80% effectiveness rate. Even if one did contract influenza after getting the vaccine, in most cases the severity of the illness will be less.

The regular flu shot is given as an injection into the muscle and is recommended for most individuals. There is a high dose flu vaccine available for adults 65 years and older which is slightly more effective than the regular flu shot.

There is also a live virus vaccine in the form of a nasal spray which is available for individuals between the ages of 2 and 49 years old.

Possible side effects of the flu vaccine include body aches, headache, low-grade fever and soreness in the muscle at the injection site. If the side effects do occur, they typically disappear and 24 to 48 hours.

Frequent hand washing with soap and water can help prevent the spread of influenza. You can use alcohol-based hand sanitizers or preferably, soap and water. Whether you are sick with the flu or are caring for someone with the flu, you should wash your hands frequently.

Cover your mouth and nose while coughing or sneezing, and throw away dirty tissues immediately. Sneezing and coughing into the sleeve of your clothing at the inner elbow is another way to prevent the spread of infection. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth since germs can spread this way. As much as possible, avoid close contact with sick people.

If you are sick with the flu, you should stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone, except to get medical care. Do not return to work or school until you have been fever-free for 24 hours without the use of a fever-reducing medicine. While you are sick, limit contact with others as much as possible to keep from infecting them.

Be sure to take advantage this fall of this highly effective preventive medical intervention – the flu vaccine.

Dr. Mark Roth writes about internal medicine for the Cleveland Jewish News. He is an internal medicine physician with University Hospitals.

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