By Minali Nigam & Maxwell Noe
Last year’s flu season was one for the record books. In North Carolina, 391 people died from flu-related complications – the most ever reported to the state’s Division of Public Health. Only 50 percent of North Carolinians got the flu shot, a percentage that hasn’t changed much in the last few years.
Even though last year’s strain of flu seemed resistant to the vaccine, the flu shot can significantly reduce symptoms. People who get the flu shot may still have chills and fatigue, but they’d be less likely to face hospitalization. As medical professionals, we’ve seen previously healthy people suffer for days in the ICU because they didn’t get vaccinated. With fall in full swing, the time to get the flu shot is now.
A Case of the flu
The flu can increase susceptiblity to diseases like pneumonia or lung failure, often requiring machine-assisted breathing. Last October, a 41-year-old man came to our hospital’s emergency department with trouble breathing. He had been feeling ill at home for a week, but prior to this, he was healthy. He required a ventilator and eventually, a surgical opening through his windpipe to help him breathe. His lungs popped because they were so damaged, and he needed tubes through his ribs to reinflate them. The only thing he tested positive for was the flu. His recovery was slow and while his story isn’t common, it’s not unheard of. The best way to protect yourself is to get the flu shot early.
How the vaccine works
Your immune system is made up of white blood cells designed to recognize and attack anything that doesn’t come from your own body, including bacteria and viruses. When you get the flu shot, you’re given a small piece of the virus, not enough to make you super sick, but just enough for your white blood cells to recognize the shape and form antibodies that can respond to future viral attacks. It’s common to have mild fevers and muscle pain at the site of injection – that’s just how our bodies feel when the immune system makes antibodies against the flu.
New year, new flu shot
The flu changes what it looks like all the time. Think of the flu virus as an actor who changes costume. Though the virus is the same, it can make itself look different and be hard for our bodies to recognize. Each flu costume is called a strain, and some strains are more dangerous than others. Scientists predict the most common flu strains for the season and include them in the vaccine. It’s an educated guess and, like last year, sometimes it’s not 100 percent right. This year, the flu strains aren’t projected to be as deadly, but it’s still important to get the vaccine because even if it doesn’t prevent you from getting the flu altogether, it can lessen the symptoms because your body is prepped in advance.
Building community immunity
Some people can’t get the vaccine because their immune systems are so weak that even a tiny exposure to the virus could make them severly ill. Infants, kids with asthma, the elderly and people with chronic diseases are more likely than the general population to get really sick from the flu. For vaccines to truly work the way they’re intended to, as many healthy people as possible need to be vaccinated. That means people who get the flu vaccine can help build community immunity. By getting the vaccine, you do your part in preventing the virus from spreading to everybody else.
The Center for Disease Control recommends getting the flu shot by end of October. Even if you get the vaccine later than that, it’s better than not getting it at all. Hopefully, Charlotte, we’ll be able to build our community immunity and have a better flu season than last. Do your part: get the shot; fight the flu.
Minali Nigam is an MD/MA candidate at UNC School of Medicine and UNC School of Media & Journalism.
Maxwell Noe, MD, is a chief emergency medicine resident at Carolinas Medical Center.