According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of United States residents have already been vaccinated against the influenza virus. Health officials aim to increase that percentage, especially since this year's season may be a bad one.
Influenza—more commonly known as simply "the flu"—is a contagious respiratory illness caused by viruses infecting the nose, throat and lungs. It spreads via infected people coughing, sneezing or talking, though people can also get infected by touching something with the flu virus on it before touching their mouth, eyes or nose.
The 2012-2013 season is shaping up to be one of the worst flu seasons in a while, officials from the CDC said in a Dec. 3 teleconference. There have been a larger number of suspected flu cases than usual in five Southern states, and this year's strain may be more virulent. Already, two children have died of the illness.
A similar flu virus struck during the 2003-2004 season, killing more than 48,000 people in one of the most lethal seasons in the past 35 years. Nevertheless, this year's vaccination appears to be better matched to the virus.
"It looks like it's shaping up to be a bad flu season, but only time will tell," CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden said.
A jump in the number of influenza cases usually doesn't occur until after Christmas.
“Flu season typically peaks in February and can last as late as May,” Dr. Anne Schuchat, Assistant Surgeon General of the U.S. Public Health Service and Director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in a news release. “We are encouraging people who have not yet been vaccinated to get vaccinated now.”
More than 200,000 people each year are hospitalized due to complications from the flu, according to the CDC.
Symptoms of the flu include muscle or body aches, headaches, cough, sore throat, fatigue, fever or chills, and vomiting and diarrhea (the latter two are more common in kids). The flu can also worsen chronic medical conditions or cause death.
People are contagious a day before symptoms appear and up to a week after getting sick.
The CDC recommends getting annual vaccines as early as possible, as it takes a few weeks to reach full immunity.
Vaccines often cost $20-$30; however, they are often covered by insurance.
Flu shots are an inactivated vaccine made from killed virus, which means it’s impossible to get the flu from the vaccine, according to Dr. Angela Rasmussen, an infectious disease expert.
There are currently three flu shots being produced in the U.S.: the regular (intramuscular) seasonal flu shot, a high-dose vaccine for people 65 and older, and an intradermal (injected into the skin) vaccine for people ages 18 to 64.
In addition, a nasal-spray flu vaccine made with live, weakened flu viruses (which also do not cause the flu) is available to healthy people ages 2 to 49-years-old, except pregnant women.
The most common side effect from a flu shot is soreness at the injection site.
Even those who think they don't need a flu shot should get one anyway, according to Jack Cantlin, a pharmacist and the divisional vice president of retail clinical services at Walgreens. It's possible to contract the virus and carry it without being sick.
The elderly, young children, pregnant women and nursing home residents are at greater risk for serious complications from the flu. People with chronic medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, cystic fibrosis and chronic lung disease—as well as those who work with them—are also at risk.
“People at high risk should talk with their doctor about getting a high-dose flu shot, as this can provide better protection for people with immune systems that have been weakened by age or other medical conditions,” Rasmussen said.
People with severe chicken egg allergies, a history of Guillain-Barré syndrome, and those who have had a severe reaction to a flu vaccine in the past should consult their doctor before getting a flu shot, and those who have a moderate or severe illness with a fever should wait to get vaccinated until they are well. Babies under six months of age should not get a flu shot.
—Melanie Rosen contributed to this report.
Do you plan to get a flu shot? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments.