University of Pennsylvania Health System

Penn Health and Wellness

Thursday, December 12, 2013

I Got the Flu Vaccine. Now I Have the Flu.

Alicia Travis, CRNP, from the Penn Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine practice discusses some known – and not-so-known – drawbacks to flu season.

Alicia Travis, CRNP
Alicia Travis, CRNP
As is required for all health care workers, I got my flu vaccine in October and figured this would protect me throughout this flu season. As I am writing this, though, I am under my heated blanket with a cup of green tea in one hand and a box of tissues in the other. My throat is sore, my nose is dripping, my temperature is 100.8° F, I have a deep chest cough, and worst of all, my body aches all over.

I have the flu and I am miserable!

The reality is that influenza is an ever-changing virus with several common strains that can cause an array of troublesome symptoms. These symptoms include fever, cough, congestion, sore throat, body aches, fatigue, headache, nausea, vomiting and generalized malaise. In immunocompromised patients, or people whose immune system is not capable of resisting the infection, influenza can be a much more severe, even fatal, illness. It is for this reason that every fall, your doctor and/or nurse recommends you get that pesky needle pinch (or inconvenient intranasal spray) to be protected.

Unfortunately, like most things in life, the flu vaccine is not 100% effective. When vaccine researchers formulate the components of the vaccine, they are speculating months in advance as to which strains will be dominant that year. Therefore, the effectiveness of the flu vaccine can vary year to year based on viral resistance patterns and the accuracy of vaccine researchers’ predictions.

According to an article published by the Center for Disease Control, researchers approximate the flu vaccine is around 60% effective most years. Meaning, this leaves me, and roughly 40% of the vaccinated population, at risk of contracting influenza despite getting the vaccine. That may seem like unfavorable odds, but 60% is better than nothing.

To put this in perspective, as a nurse practitioner in a busy adolescent and young adult practice, I have seen upwards of 100 patients in the past couple months with flu-like symptoms. Influenza is very contagious and, if I had not received the vaccine, I would have certainly been at a higher risk of contracting influenza.

The key to staying flu-free is to wash your hands frequently, stay away from anyone who has flu-like symptoms, stay well rested and get your flu vaccine.

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