Haven't gotten a flu shot yet? Thinking of skipping it this season? Your doctor would tell you to think again.
For healthy people, influenza — the contagious respiratory illness more commonly known as the flu — can cause a fever, sore throat, cough, runny nose and/or muscle aches.
"For most young, healthy people, it'll be an illness that'll last five to seven days; they'll be uncomfortable," said Stephen Sivak, M.D., the Paul J. Johnson chairman of medicine at Albert Einstein Medical Center.
For others, the flu can even be life-threatening.
People with chronic lung diseases like emphysema, asthma and chronic bronchitis are at a high risk of complications from the flu, explained Bennett Shenker, M.D., instructor and research fellow in the department of family and community medicine at Thomas Jefferson University.
The doctor also labeled those with heart, kidney or liver diseases as "high risk," as well as pregnant women and those with immune-deficiency disorders, like HIV or AIDS.
Complications can include pneumonia, respiratory illnesses or respiratory failure, he said.
Each year in the United States, between 5 percent and 20 percent of the population gets the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Moreover, approximately 200,000 individuals per year are hospitalized from flu complications, and about 36,000 people die each year after getting the flu.
The only people who should not get the vaccination, according to the doctors, are those who are allergic to eggs, infants under 6 months old or those who have previously had an adverse reaction to the shot.
But doesn't the flu shot actually give you the flu?
"That's a common misconception — I hear that a lot," said Sivak, who pointed to a study where researchers gave the flu shot to one group and a placebo to the other. In both cases, 10 percent got a cold after receiving the shot, suggesting that the cold was coincidental and not caused by the vaccination.
"The vaccine doesn't prevent a cold from coming; it prevents influenza infections," said Jerry Zuckerman, M.D., medical director for infectious-disease protection and control at Einstein.
Sivak noted that just because someone may be sniffling does not mean he or she has the flu.
"I think people use the term 'flu' incorrectly," he said.
"If you're sick, but able to get out of bed and go to work," added Zuckerman, then "you probably don't have the flu."
Sniff, Rather Than Shot
If you're looking to get vaccinated but happen to be scared of needles, another alternative exists. It's called Flu Mist, which is sprayed into the nostril rather than shot into the bloodstream.
The nasal vaccination is made from a live attenuated culture that replicates in the nose to create antibodies, said Neil Fishman, M.D., director of health-care epidemiology and infection prevention at the University of Pennsylvania hospital. The vaccine shot into the arm is made from a dead flu virus.
However, this product isn't for everybody — just healthy people between the ages of 2 and 49. Individuals with asthma or children under the age of 5 with recurrent wheezing should keep away from the nasal vaccine.
"You have to be healthy — and nonpregnant," offered Shenker. "Anybody who might be at a very high risk of complications from the flu should not get the nasal vaccine."
Fishman said that some people may get a runny nose, sore throat or nasal congestion a few days after receiving Flu Mist, but that just means the body is building up antibodies to the virus.
"The body is developing immunity to the virus," said Fishman. "It's actually a good thing."
So does that make it a hard sell for some patients?
"It's not a hard sell for anyone who's ever had influenza. That feels a lot worse!" he responded.
Sivak noted, however, that getting a vaccination doesn't mean you're completely immune from the flu. He said that preventatives are 88 percent effective — be it shot or spray.
Doctors did agree on this: Unlike years past, this season there are more than enough flu vaccinations to go around. Thus, anyone who wants one should be able to get one.
And remember: The season lasts much longer than most people think. Winter may officially start on Dec. 21, but the flu season continues through early spring — even into April.