I get a flu shot every fall, usually after a routine rheumatologist appointment. The VA medical center where I get my care offers them to all vets, and they keep them handy in all the clinics for their patients. It’s a quick little thing—just a roll-up of my sleeve, a chilly alcohol swab, a fast jab. It’s done and I’m out the door.
And hey, it doesn’t hurt. When the nurse gave me this year’s shot, back in early November, I only felt the alcohol swab. “You’re good!” I told her reverently, and we both had a laugh before I went on my way. (Of course, she’d had plenty of practice—I had to have been her 200th flu jab that week.)
And then I usually forget about it, unless it’s a flu-year like this one, when suddenly after the new year flu cases spike dramatically all over the country and the reports start showing up on the evening news. Here in California right now, cases of the flu are all over the place; it’s “widespread” here and in almost every other state in the Union.
“Widespread.” That means one of two things: either people are catching flu bugs that weren’t covered by this year’s vaccine, or a whole lot of people didn’t get a flu shot this year. I’m guessing it’s probably the latter.
Please go get the flu shot.
If you’re one of them, let me just say this: please, please go get the flu shot. It’s not too late. Call your primary care physician. Or check at a local pharmacy. I just googled: CVS, Walgreen’s, and Rite-Aid pharmacies all offer on-the-spot flu vaccines. Shots cost between $30 and $40; the prices are up this year, but it’s money well spent. You can also find places to get flu shots locally by clicking on the Flu Vaccine Finder app on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Flu webpage. In some communities, shots are available for free to seniors and other high-risk populations through the county health department, too.
Here’s why it’s so important to get a flu shot, even this late into the flu season (generally, the season starts in November and can last as late as May, peaking between December and March). If you’re reading this, you’ve probably got rheumatoid disease. That being the case, it’s likely that you’re taking drugs to treat the disease. Many of them—most DMARDs (Disease Modifying Anti-Rheumatic Drugs) and all biologics—can vastly lower your immune system’s ability to fight off infection—including infection by the influenza virus. That means your chances of picking up that nasty flu bug—and it appears to be particularly tough and virulent this year—are extremely high.
Catching the flu is miserable for anyone…
…but for people with weakened/compromised immune systems like so many of us with RD, it’s dangerous or even deadly. Flu is a respiratory illness that comes on fast and hits hard. According to the CDC, symptoms include:
- Fever or feeling feverish/chills (important: not everyone will have a fever)
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle or body aches
- Fatigue (tiredness)
- Some people may have vomiting or diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults.
Further, the CDC notes: “Most people who get influenza will recover in several days to less than two weeks, but some people will develop complications as a result of the flu. A wide range of complications can be caused by influenza virus infection of the upper respiratory tract (nasal passages, throat) and lower respiratory tract (lungs). While anyone can get sick with flu and become severely ill, some people are more likely to experience severe flu illness. Young children, adults aged 65 years and older, pregnant women, and people with certain chronic medical conditions are among those groups of people who are at high risk of serious flu complications, possibly requiring hospitalization and sometimes resulting in death. For example, people with chronic lung disease are at higher risk of developing severe pneumonia.
Sinus and ear infections are examples of moderate complications from flu, while pneumonia is a serious flu complication that can result from either influenza virus infection alone or from co-infection of flu virus and bacteria. Other possible serious complications triggered by flu can include inflammation of the heart (myocarditis), brain (encephalitis) or muscle (myositis, rhabdomyolysis) tissues, and multi-organ failure (for example, respiratory and kidney failure). Flu virus infection of the respiratory tract can trigger an extreme inflammatory response in the body and can lead to sepsis, the body’s life-threatening response to infection. Flu also can make chronic medical problems worse. For example, people with asthma may experience asthma attacks while they have the flu, and people with chronic heart disease may experience a worsening of this condition triggered by flu.”
Am I trying to scare you into getting that flu shot? Yep, I am.
You can find out more about this year’s flu epidemic by visiting the CDC’s flu webpages.