Living Columns & Blogs

Why getting your flu shot is especially important in Centre County

Many Centre County adults are looking ahead to the November elections and setting aside time on Nov. 6 to vote. However, another civic duty can be taken care of right now: getting a flu shot.

Immunization means more than protecting yourself from influenza, which is commonly called “the flu.” Taking 30 minutes or less to get immunized helps protect everyone nearby — especially babies, the elderly and people with chronic medical conditions — from an illness that can result in hospitalization or even death.

A costly, deadly illness

Each year in the United States, the flu causes as many as 56,000 deaths, 710,000 hospitalizations and 31.4 million outpatient visits, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The flu also results in an annual economic burden of more than $87 billion, thanks to factors such as lost days of work and cost of medical care. All of these harmful effects would be reduced significantly if everyone who is eligible took the time to get an annual flu shot.

Almost anyone who is at least 6 months old can receive this year’s flu vaccine, including pregnant women, people with egg allergies and people with chronic medical conditions. If you are concerned about the flu vaccine, discuss your medical history with a health care provider. Different vaccines, including injections and nasal sprays, are available for different ages and medical conditions.

An annual flu vaccination is particularly important for:

  • Anyone who will be near children, especially babies younger than 6 months old because they cannot be vaccinated

  • People with chronic health conditions, such as heart or lung disease. The flu could be deadly for these individuals

  • Children ages 6 months through 4 years

  • Adults age 50 and over because they are more likely to have chronic health conditions

  • Those who suffer from a low-functioning immune system, due to a medical condition or medication

  • Women who are or who plan to become pregnant soon, have recently given birth or are breastfeeding

  • Residents of nursing homes and other chronic-care facilities where flu could spread easily

  • Health care personnel, since they are likely to come into contact with patients who have the flu

  • College students who live in group housing and anyone who works with students

Today is a great flu shot day

Although flu usually is most prevalent during the winter, flu season starts as early as October and continues through May. Getting a flu shot early in the season gives the body time to build up the greatest immunity before exposure is likely.

However, getting immunized late in the season is better than not getting immunized at all. This is especially important in Centre County, where thousands of Penn State students travel over the winter holidays and spring break. These travels can expose the students to influenza strains in hard-hit areas of the country or world, which the travelers unknowingly bring back here.

A flu virus spreads very easily, primarily from person to person via droplets made when people with the flu cough, sneeze or talk. The virus can travel as far as six feet via these droplets. It also is possible, although less likely, to contract the flu by touching a contaminated surface and then touching one’s own mouth or eyes.

People can infect others as early as one day before symptoms arise and up to seven days after becoming sick. Some people have no symptoms when they contract the flu virus. That’s good luck for them, since they don’t get sick but bad luck for others who do because they don’t realize they’re standing next to a carrier.

Clearly, staying away from other people who show flu symptoms is not a foolproof method of avoiding the flu. A flu shot is the best way to lessen your chances of a miserable week in bed with fever, body aches, sore throat, cough or other symptoms. Although each year’s vaccine targets specific flu strains, it also helps the body defend itself against other strains, so symptoms could be milder if you get a nontargeted strain.

Now is the perfect time to help yourself, as well as vulnerable family, friends and neighbors, before the flu hits Centre County hard. Get a flu shot, and be proud to have carried out a civic duty.

Penn State Health will hold a Drive-Thru Flu Shot clinic on Saturday, Oct. 13, from 8 a.m. to noon, at the Bellefonte Area High School. Penn State Health will be offering 1,000 free flu shots to anyone 3 years of age and older. For more information, call 235-2480.

Christopher Heron, MD, is a family medicine physician with Penn State Medical Group. located at 1850 E. Park Ave, Suite 207, in State College.