Q: I know I should probably get a flu shot, but I hate needles and I’ve heard people get sick after getting the shot. What are my alternatives and how much does it typically cost?

A: This is a great question, particularly in light of the fact that we are in the midst of a major flu epidemic in Atlanta.

Influenza is a contagious respiratory illness that can be quite serious and result in hospitalizations and even death, especially in the very young and those over 65 years old, as well as people with chronic health conditions.

There are two main influenza viruses (A and B), but there are many sub-types. It is these sub-types that are determined to be circulating in any given year, and then these make up the flu vaccine for that year. Sometimes, there is a good match with the flu virus that causes the disease that year and sometimes the match is not as perfect.

Influenza spreads by tiny droplets that are produced when infected patients cough, sneeze or talk. These generally land on the non-infected person. Less often, the influenza virus can be spread from contaminated surfaces.

The infected person is contagious beginning a day before signs and symptoms appear to up to five to seven days after. Symptoms of flu include fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, muscle and joint aches, headaches and fatigue. These symptoms are much worse than the common cold or winter viruses that people mistake for the flu. Complications like pneumonia can occur and often result in hospitalization and in a worst-case scenario, death.

Influenza can be diagnosed with a swab at your doctor’s office, and there are medicines that can be prescribed to reduce the severity and duration of symptoms and prevent complications.

As mentioned, Georgia is one of the states experiencing a significant flu outbreak. There were 56 hospitalizations from flu in the first week of 2018. There have been 307 flu-related hospitalizations since the flu season started, with 62 percent of those in people over 50 years old. There have been five deaths attributed to influenza thus far this season.

Now to specifically address the vaccine: getting a flu shot is the number one thing that you can to do avoid coming down with influenza. It is not too late — doctors will vaccinate into March. Everyone over six months of age should be vaccinated.

Flu vaccines are all injectable. There was previously a nasal mist live virus vaccine, but it is no longer recommended. A shot is practically painless as the needle is tiny and the amount of vaccine administered is small. Flu shots cannot give you the flu. There is no live virus in the vaccine. However, there can be minor side effects or pain at the injection site, low grade fever and achiness that is usually short-lived.

The vaccine is covered by Medicare, Medicaid and all commercial payers, usually with no copay. For those with no insurance, a flu vaccine can cost $20-$25.

So, no matter how good or bad the match is for the current flu, the vaccine will help to keep you from getting sick with the flu, and if you do get sick, it will decrease the risk of complications.

Please remember, in some years up to 100,000 people nationwide are hospitalized with influenza and as many as 10,000 people die.

Protect yourself and those you love — get a flu shot!

Joel Rosenstock, MD, MPH
Chief Medical Officer
AbsoluteCARE Medical Center & Pharmacy

Ask The Doctor is a monthly health column where the experts at AbsoluteCARE answer your pressing medical questions. Have a question you want answered? Email it to askthedoctor@thegavoice.com!

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