It’s estimated that some 60,000 hospitalizations each year could be avoided if more people got the flu vaccine, said Dr. Charles Bregier, Novant Health medical director of corporate health.
The vaccine is quite effective once the body builds up an antibody response, which takes about two weeks. Most years, it reduces the risk of getting the flu by about 40-60%, Bregier said.
Most people who get flu will recover in a few days to less than two weeks, but some people will develop complications (such as pneumonia) as a result of flu, some of which can be life-threatening. There are several groups of people who are at greater risk of experiencing potentially severe complications if they get the flu, Bregier said.
1. Pregnant women
Bregier said pregnant women are at “significantly higher risk” to have a more severe illness if they get the flu. He advises they get the flu vaccine regardless of where they are at in their pregnancy – the first month or ninth.
Mothers also pass the antibodies onto their developing baby during pregnancy, which then helps to protect the baby for several months after birth.
2. People with chronic conditions
Many people can suffer a more severe reaction to the flu. That includes people with diabetes, asthma, heart disease, lung disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a history of stroke or heart attacks, and congestive heart failure or other chronic health problems.
“Your heart has limits in the amount of blood it can effectively pump," Bregier said. “All of these conditions make it more difficult to be active and get the proper ventilation in and out of your lungs as you're breathing. Additionally, one of the major complications of flu is pneumonia. People with heart disease, lung disease and especially Type 1 diabetics are much more likely to develop pneumonia. The biggest killers in people who get the flu are complications like pneumonia.”
3. Children under 5 years old
Bregier recommends an annual flu vaccine for children ages six months and older, with rare exceptions. Not only will it reduce the risk of flu illness and hospitalization for the child, it helps prevent spreading the flu to siblings or babies who are too young to receive the vaccine.
4. Older adults
Anyone who is 65 or older is also at higher risk of having flu complications “just by virtue of their age,” Bregier said, and by the fact that their immune system may not be able to fight off the flu as well as a younger individual.
5. People who take medications that suppress the immune system
Immunosuppressant drugs reduce the strength of the body’s immune system and thus, its ability to fight off the flu. Consult with a physician about any medications you may be taking that could fall into this category.
6. People from communities in need
Bregier said studies show that people who lack access to health care or good nutrition may also be at a disadvantage to fight infection. Novant Health supports vaccine equity for all communities and brings free flu vaccines to Charlotte-region communities through the Community Care Cruiser.