IT WASN’T that long ago that getting a flu shot took some doing. You could make an appointment to see your doctor — if your doctor even put up with the hassle of giving the shots. Or you could trek down to the county health department and stand in line on the days the shots were administered. Ditto a few grocery and drug stores, which held flu shot “clinics” at what seemed like the most inconvenient of times, in some years accompanied by their own long lines.
Today, getting vaccinated against influenza is a simple matter of dropping by a drug store or grocery store — at your convenience.
And still, just a third of us are vaccinated each year.
Which suggests that the problem isn’t access. It’s willingness to get the shot. It’s understanding (or, more precisely, not understanding) that when you protect yourself from the flu, you also protect all the people you come into contact with — especially the oldest and youngest and weakest.
That goes doubly when you get your children vaccinated, because schools and day-care centers are influenza factories, churning out a virus that is little more than an inconvenience for most kids but can be a death sentence for grandparents or others with compromised immune systems.
An average of 35,000 Americans die each year as a result of contracting the flu — more than the number of people killed in traffic fatalities. Unlike traffic fatalities, 90 percent of these victims are 65 or older.
Most victims don’t die of the flu itself, but of complications such as pneumonia, congestive heart failure or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. (That’s why those older than 65 or with chronic conditions who never have had a pneumonia vaccination or who have had only one, more than five years ago, should get that too, along with their flu shot.)
Even when people survive the flu, it can cause ear infections, sinus infections, dehydration and worsening of chronic conditions such as congestive heart failure, asthma and diabetes. An estimated 200,000 Americans are hospitalized each year as a result of the flu or complications.
Flu season usually begins in October and can last through May, and it takes about two weeks for the shot to start working, so now is the time to get vaccinated for maximum protection.
In addition to infants, the elderly and those with chronic conditions, those at greatest risk include pregnant women and people who work in nursing homes.
Even after you get a flu shot (and especially if you don’t), it’s important to embrace prevention, again, both for your own health and to reduce the chance that you will harm others: Wash your hands frequently, and always before you eat; cough or sneeze into a tissue or, if nothing else, your sleeve instead of your hands; stay home if you’re sick; and avoid others who are sick.
And if you think you’re coming down with the flu — think fever, body aches, extreme tiredness and dry cough — contact your physician immediately; antivirals, particularly if taken in the first day or two after onset, can shorten the duration of the flu, reducing your chance of developing complications, or infecting others.