Flu season is back again, and health officials are lining up the needles to help people protect themselves from influenza.
Q: Who should get a flu shot?
A: Everyone over the age of 6 months is recommended for a flu vaccination, which has been the federal Centers for Disease Control's recommendation since 2010. Manufacturers are shipping more than 139 million doses of vaccine this year in anticipation of heavy demand.
Q: Which strains will hit this year?
A: The flu is extremely unpredictable, officials say, but they believe this year's prevalent strains will be two strains of influenza A, tagged H1N1 and H3N2, and a strain of influenza B.
Q: What if they're wrong?
A: The CDC states that even if a strain becomes prevalent that was not included in the vaccination, your overall immunity bolstered by the shot can help lessen its impact on you.
Q: How bad was the flu last year?
A: The 2012 outbreak was considered "moderately severe" by the CDC, with 12,337 hospitalizations between October and April. About 50 percent of patients were seniors. It also hit children hard: 149 children died of the flu last year in 38 states, higher than the usual 34-123 range seen since the CDC began tracking pediatric deaths from flu in 2004. The only higher rate was the 2009 influenza pandemic, which killed 348 children.
In Illinois, 800 people ended up in intensive care wards from the flu, and more than 100 people died.
Outpatient visits were also the highest we've seen since they began tracking for it in 1997: 6.1 percent of doctor visits were for the flu. By comparison, recent years were about 2.4 percent, except for 7.7 percent in 2009.
Q: Who is at higher risk for serious cases?
A: Older people, young children, people with chronic lung diseases such as asthma or COPD, people with diabetes, heart disease and other long-term health problems, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems. But healthy people also can get seriously ill from the flu.
Q: I never get sick. Why should I get a flu shot?
A: "The flu changes every year, and even healthy children and adults can get sick and spread it to their friends and family," said Melaney Arnold of the Illinois Department of Public Health. "Even if you don't get the severe symptoms, if you're exposing other people to it, they could potentially have a serious reaction. People die of the flu every year. You're not just protecting yourself, but those around you."
Q: But I hate needles.
A: There is a nasal spray version, recommended for those aged 2 to 49 who are not pregnant. It is a live attenuated virus, but it cannot give you the flu, according to IDPH. Ask your physician if you are a good candidate for the nasal spray instead of the needle.
Q: I'm allergic to eggs. I can't get the vaccine.
A: New this year is a product called Flublock which does not use a chicken egg to make the vaccine, according to Marsha Wild of the St. Clair County Health Department. It is recommended for those aged 18 to 49 with egg sensitivity. Ask your health provider if you are a good candidate for this vaccine.
Q: When should we get the shot?
A: As soon as possible, and preferably before October. While the flu season usually peaks in January and February, last year it peaked in December. "Some people wait to get their flu shot until it gets cold or near the holidays," said Amy Yeager, public information officer for the Madison County Health Department. "But you should get it sooner rather than later. ... Go get it done, and that way you won't have to worry about it."
Q: Where can I get a flu shot for my self or my child?
A: Your best bet is to call your doctor. Many insurance plans offer coverage for the flu vaccine. Your employer also may have a vaccination program. There also are many flu vaccination clinics that will be offered through major retailers, public health programs, pharmacies, hospitals and more. Watch for fliers and advertisements.
Q: What about the health department?
A: Flu shots are not offered for adults at the St. Clair County Health Department. Flu shots are offered for children who qualify for the Vaccines For Children program. They must meet certain guidelines, such as being uninsured or whose insurance does not cover vaccines. Call the health department at 233-7703 if you have questions about the program.
In Madison County, the flu vaccine is offered during regular clinic hours: 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Mondays and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays. Appointments are not necessary, but the clinic is closed from noon to 1 p.m. for lunch. Cost is $35 a shot. Insurance will not be billed, but they also participate in Vaccines For Children. Call 692-8954, ext. 2 for more information.
Q: What else can I do?
A: The usual advice applies: Cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough, wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water as often as possible, and if you get sick, stay home. Do not go out in public and infect others.
Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2507.