Flu Shot: The Big Q's

How effective is the flu shot? "No vaccine is 100 percent effective," says Kevin Cranston, head of the Massachusetts State Bureau of Infectious Diseases. But the CDC reports that this year's vaccine is about 62% effective -- on par with previous years.

According to Craig Burridge, Executive Director of the Pharmacists Society of the State of New York, this year's flu covers four influenza viruses: Influenza A and B viruses, H1N1 viruses and H3N2.

Who should get the vaccine? The CDC recommends all people over the age of 6 months get the flu shot. But it's especially important for those who are at high risk of influenza complications:

• Pregnant women
• Children under 5 years but especially younger than 2 years
• Older adults 65 years and older
• People with chronic conditions like asthma, diabetes and heart disease

If I get the flu shot, can I still get sick? In a word, yes. It takes 10-14 days for immunity to kick in. So it's possible if you were exposed to the flu virus a few days before or after vaccination, you might still get the flu. Which is why most health experts recommend you get vaccinated early before peak contagion -- as soon as the flu shot becomes available, typically in September or October.

So why get immunized? Even if you do get the flu, being vaccinated can help lessen the symptoms. Dr. Steven Lamm, Director of Men's Health, New York University School of Medicine: "The flu vaccine often prevents complications of the flu rather than the flu itself. Individuals who are at most risk for complications are the same individuals who respond the least to the flu vaccine...

The flu vaccination is the first step in protecting against the flu. Practicing good hygiene, including covering your cough and washing your hands frequently, is also important. Should an individual develop flu-like symptoms, call your doctor as they may prescribe antiviral agents to reduce the severity of the illness."

Does getting the flu shot increase your chances of getting sick? No. There is no live virus in a flu shot, so it will not infect you. Says Burridge, "The flu vaccine does not cause the flu. It is common to experience reactions to the shot such as achiness or on rare occasion, a low-grade fever."

Peak season's almost over. Should I still get the shot? Flu seasons vary in length. They can begin as early as October, and hang around as late as May. Given this year's severity, the bug may be with us well after Groundhog Day, so you've got time.

How about that vaccine shortage? In some states, pharmacies such as CVS and Rite Aid say they're running out of their flu vaccine supplies due to unusually high -- and early -- demand. But in California, where the flu hasn't hit as early or in the epidemic proportions of states like Massachusetts, there's plenty. As of Jan. 4, more than 128 million doses of the vaccine have been distributed. That's out of the 135 million doses drug makers typically produce each year. So, seek and ye likely shall find.

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Avoiding Infection

The good news: The influenza virus doesn't last long on soft surfaces like Kleenex or blankets. The bad news: It can last up to 12 hours on hard surfaces. So you could get it from touching doors, elevator buttons, cell phones, counters, etc. But usually, flu spreads by contact such as kissing, shaking hands with an infected person, or being coughed or sneezed on. In addition to getting the flu shot, there are a few things you can do...

• Wash hands frequently and long enough to hum the "Happy Birthday" song twice.
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose, mouth.
• Cough or sneeze into your elbow or a tissue (please!).

Flu got you anyway?

• Stay home from school or work as soon as symptoms appear. Symptoms can include: fever of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, or just feeling feverish without a temperature. Body aches, headache and/or chills. Cough and/or sore throat. Runny or stuffy nose. Fatigue, nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea (most common in children).

• See a doctor. Anti-viral drugs are available and can be especially vital for high-risk individuals.

• Continue to stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever dissipates without the help of medicine.

• Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at home, work or school, especially when someone is ill.