I know that I should get the flu shot, but I am worried that I might get sick anyway. My doctor has diagnosed me with “moderate” COPD and I take Spiriva in the morning and ProAir 2 – 3 times a day depending on how busy I am. I don’t smoke anymore.
Julie from Keene, NH
Prevention and treatment of the flu is important for everyone, especially for those with COPD. “Flu” is due to influenza viruses that spread by coughing, sneezing, and close contact. Anyone can get the flu which usually occurs between October and May, and peaks in the US between December and February. If you get the flu, you usually feel sick suddenly with fever and chills, sore throat, muscle aches, and tiredness. You may also have a new cough along with a headache. Flu can cause penumonia, and each year people die from the flu.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone 6 months of age or older receive a flu vaccine every year. The flu shot for adults contains three dead flu viruses (called trivalent) based on what the experts expect may cause illness this flu season. Some of the flu shots this year may also protect against an additional dead influenza B virus (called quadrivalent).
You should not get the flu shot if you have:
1. severe life-threatening allergies including allergy to eggs
2. ever had Guillan-Barre syndrome – a severe illness that paralyzes muscles
3. are feeling sick (you can get the flu shot when you are feeling better)
With any vaccine, there is a chance of side effects. These are usually mild and go away without treatment. The most common side effect is soreness and redness in the arm where the shot was given. As with any medication, there is a remote chance of serious injury or death.
When should I get the flu shot? It is recommended that you get vaccinated against the flu when the vaccine becomes available, usually in October. Remember, it takes about 2 weeks for your body to develop antibodies (proteins that fight infection) that help to protect against the flu viruses.
Can I get the flu after I received the vaccine? Yes, it is possible for a couple different reasons:
1. you may have been exposed to the flu virus shortly before getting the flu shot
2. you may be exposed to a flu virus that is not included in the flu vaccine
3. your body may not have developed complete protection after getting the flu shot because some older people and those with chronic illnesses (such as COPD) may have weakened immune systems.
Unfortunately, the flu shot does not provide 100% protection against getting the flu.
If I get the flu, is there any treatment? Yes, if you get the flu, there are anti-viral medications (different than antibiotics that fight bacterial infections) that can shorten your illness and should make you feel better quicker. Also, antiviral drugs can prevent serious flu-related complications like pneumonia. There are two antiviral drugs recommended for flu treatment. These are:
1. oseltamivir (brand name: Tamiflu) – a pill or liquid in use since 1999
2. zanamivir (brand name: Relenza) – HOWEVER, RELENZA IS AN INHALED POWDER AND SHOULD NOT BE USED BY ANYONE WITH ASTHMA OR COPD.
Treatment of the flu is recommended for those considered to be at increased risk of getting serious complications from the flu. These include adults 65 years of age or older and those with COPD among other chronic conditions. It is important to contact your doctor when you first have flu-like symptoms. Studies show that Tamiflu works best for treatment if started within 2 days of getting sick. It is usually taken for 5 days.
Donald A. Mahler, M.D.
One type of influenza virus called H1N1