Flu season is on the horizon, and in preparation, area pharmacies and physicians’ offices are already offering immunizations aimed at warding off the contagious condition caused by influenza viruses. Beginning in mid-October, pharmacies will for the first time also offer a vaccine to help prevent shingles — a painful version of the chickenpox virus.
According to the state Department of Health, between 5 and 20 percent of the U.S. population comes down with the flu every year. It’s a miserable affliction that typically saddles the sufferer with a fever, cough, sore throat, stuffy nose, fatigue, headaches and muscle or body aches.
Family physician Kyle Osborn from Niskayuna Family Medicine of Community Care Physicians spelled out exactly what it feels like to have the flu: “It’s not having a cold, where most of us probably fight through a cold and go to work. When you have the flu, you’re really not moving for a few days. There’s shaking, chills, body aches from head to toe, like you’ve been beaten up,” he said.
Kids, seniors, health care workers and people with certain health issues are more at risk for serious complications from the flu, and the list of possibilities is nothing to sneeze at: It includes pneumonia, dehydration and worsening of chronic medical conditions.
The Department of Health reports that on average more than 200,000 people annually are hospitalized in the U.S. due to flu complications and over 23,600 deaths per year are associated with the virus.
A flu shot can’t guarantee you’ll get through flu season scot-free, but it certainly ups your chances, according to medical experts. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone who is at least six months old be vaccinated annually.
Flu season can last from October through May, with its peak usually in January or February. Although medical professionals can’t pinpoint how severely the region will be hit this flu season, each person who gets vaccinated helps to better the public health, said Eve Bankert, director of infection prevention and epidemiology for Ellis Medicine.
“The best defense is to get as many people in the community vaccinated and create what they call a ‘herd effect.’ The more people you can immunize, the less chance you’ll have of transmission,” she explained.
Price Chopper Supermarkets ordered 25,000 doses of the 2012-2013 flu vaccine — a significant increase from last year’s order, according to clinical pharmacist Kim Houser. Local Price Chopper pharmacies began immunizing patrons in mid-August and business has been brisk, Houser said.
“I think people are just a little bit more cognizant of what’s going on this year,” she said. “The CDC does recommend to get vaccinated as soon as the vaccination becomes available, so we vaccinate our patients as soon as the doses come into our stores.”
According to the CDC, for the 2012-2013 season, manufacturers have projected that they will produce between 146 million and 149 million doses of the flu vaccine to distribute in the U.S. That’s an increase of over 13 million doses from the 2011-2012 season, when 132.8 million doses were distributed.
There’s no way to predict when flu season will actually start, so it’s best to get vaccinated as soon as possible, Houser said.
Once the vaccine has been administered, it takes at least two weeks for the body to produce a high enough level of antibodies to provide sufficient protection from the virus, noted Bankert.
There are people who hold off on getting vaccinated because they worry the vaccine won’t stay effective until the end of flu season, but she said that’s not a smart plan of action.
“You should go ahead and get your flu vaccine now because you’ll be covered until the end of May,” she assured.
Procrastinators can still receive a belated measure of protection from the vaccine, according to Marci Natale, deputy director of public affairs for the New York State Department of Health. It’s not too late to get immunized even in the springtime, she said.
Those who don’t get the vaccine before the flu gets to them will likely receive a healthy dose of reality that will have them in line for a flu shot next year, Osborn said.
“If you get the flu once, you won’t want it again,” he assured.
There are those who should not get a flu shot, Bankert noted — anyone who is allergic to eggs, has had a severe reaction to a flu vaccine in the past, is younger than six months old, or has a history of Guillain-Barre syndrome.
Flu shots are offered only to customers 19 years of age or older at pharmacies in New York state. Those who are younger must get theirs at a doctor’s office or the local health department, said Natale.
For people over age 65, there is a customized flu vaccine.
“Sometimes seniors don’t have a great response to the [regular] vaccine, so the high-dose flu vaccine has four times the antigen, so it should provide some better immunity for seniors,” Houser said.
As an added protection for people age 50 and over, starting in October, Price Chopper pharmacies will offer the Zostavax vaccine, which boosts immunity to shingles, a condition also known as zoster or herpes zoster.
Pharmacies throughout the state have permission to administer the vaccine starting in mid-October, Natale confirmed. The immunization was only offered by physicians’ offices in the past, she said.
Chickenpox can remain latent in the body and make a return as shingles when the immune system is compromised, Osborn said. He described the illness as extremely painful and one that could make people very ill.
According to the CDC, nearly one out of every three people in the U.S. will develop shingles. Anyone who has recovered from chickenpox can develop the illness, which usually starts as a painful rash on one side of the face or body. The rash forms blisters that typically scab over in seven to 10 days and clear up within two to four weeks. Other symptoms can include fever, chills, headache and upset stomach.