Flu season in the United States is a yearly challenge. The contagious Influenza virus, with symptoms that are similar to the common cold, typically spreads throughout the winter season, starting as early as August and ending in May. While there are certain groups of people who have a higher risk of flu, everyone needs a yearly flu shot due to the virus’s ever-changing characteristics and it’s ability to be fatal to those with compromised immune systems such as children with asthma, infants, or elderly members of your family.

In a recent interview with Dr. Marta Katalenas, Pediatric Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Sarmistha Bhaduri Hauger of Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas explained the complications of contracting the Influenza virus, its symptoms, and why it is important for everyone to get vaccinations before the flu season begins.

“Influenza, or the ‘flu’, is a respiratory virus, which commonly occurs in the winter time,” explained Dr. Hauger, “What we as physicians look for are the more body-specific symptoms of influenza such as severe headaches, abdominal pains, muscle aches, vomiting and diarrhea.”

The Influenza virus has subtle but serious variances that result in two strains, or ‘families’, of the virus. Dr. Hauger and her colleagues call the families “A virus” and “B virus”. The changeability of these strains make vaccination creation very challenging for both the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, and therefore thwart efforts to create an all-encompassing solution to alleviate the spread of Influenza.

Dr. Hauger explained the differences between the two families of Influenza to Dr. Katalenas. “The influenza “A” virus has subtypes which change every year. This slight change in the virus itself is called “antigenic drift”, and can mean that the slight drift may allow the newly mutated Influenza virus to invade the immune system.”

Dr. Hauger further explained the other strain’s more drastic mutation. “The “B” virus on the other hand changes dramatically and abruptly, so it’s usually something that doctors may not see immediately,” said Dr. Hauger. “The  “A” virus  can also change rapidly, but it may be something we, as a human population, have never seen before and that is called “antigenic shift”.  When that happens, we may have a population that is not protected against the actively circulating viruses, and have the potential to result in a worldwide epidemic, or pandemic.”

While it is important for every person to get flu shots every flu season, it is doubly important for the elderly and individuals with lowered or compromised immune systems. Dr. Hauger explained, “Many elderly people have rheumatoid arthritis, and some newly developed medications can suppress their immune system while simultaneously suppressing their immune response to the virus.”

Additionally, infants under the age of 2 years old and pregnant mothers must get flu vaccinations. According to Dr. Hauger, “Babies that are less than six months old are at a very high risk for Influenza complications, and can die from them. We’ve learned from the 2009 flu pandemic that pregnant women are at a very high risk of influenza and suffering due to flu complications. This observation drove the CDC and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices to completely overhaul the recommendations they made about administering the annual flu vaccinations for all pregnant women.”

Although this recommendation may cause concern for pregnant mothers, Dr. Hauger further explained, “Through flu vaccinations, the mother develops immunity. After thirty-six weeks of pregnancy, the mother’s immunity is passed to the baby. When that baby is born, some immunity against the influenza virus exists within the newborn, and that is very important.”

Both Dr. Hauger and Dr. Katalenas encourage parents of children with preexisting respiratory conditions such as asthma to have their child vaccinated against Influenza. “It is dangerous for an asthmatic person to go through the flu season without the vaccine,” said Dr. Katalenas, expounding on Dr. Hauger’s point of having children vaccinated because of the serious complications this respiratory virus can have.

Thousands of people know that the flu vaccine is safe and effective, but there are some skeptics who believe the vaccine makes humans sick. Dr. Hauger explained why that rationale is far from accurate by saying, “The vaccination doesn’t give humans the flu. About ten to thirty percent of people experience a low grade fever and feel some achiness after getting the vaccine. When this happens, your immune system is reacting against the vaccine. It is always better to get the vaccine than not to get it.”

For individuals with egg allergies, Dr. Hauger recommends visiting an allergist to understand possible complications of flu vaccination administration. “The CDC says that if you have an egg allergy, that is accompanied by hives, flu vaccine administration is relatively safe,” explained Dr. Hauger, “However, it is useful to consult with an allergist. Most Influenza vaccines are cultured in egg embryos, causing the egg proteins to stimulate an allergic response in a person. For most people with mild allergies or mild reactions, the vaccine is pretty safe.”

Dr. Katalenas and Dr. Hauger both agree that when you vaccinate yourself and your family against Influenza, the entire community benefits. Keep in mind that protecting your children from this contagious virus should be your top priority this flu season, which will last until May. Make an appointment with Pediatric Center of Round Rock for vaccinations or click here for more flu information.

Visit www.speciallyforchildren.com for more information about Dr. Hauger and information about Infectious Disease vaccinations.

About the Author

Dr. Katalenas

Dr. Katalenas is a pediatrician and owner of The Pediatric Center of Round Rock and the author of the book "The Step Up Diet: From Scratch… The Quality, Quantity, and Timing Solution to Childhood Obesity", a guide to healthy cooking and eating for busy families.