Influenza vaccine — now more than ever

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

December 2012

We might as well add influenza to those two things we can't escape: death and taxes. Influenza will always be with us. Most strains of this virus originate in Asia and begin to circulate in the United States around October, finally retreating in the Spring.

The influenza virus is unusual in that it varies in its genetic makeup from year to year so that manufacturers have to tailor their vaccines to be protective against the current season's virus, a challenging task. Fortunately they are usually right.

What is thought to be influenza is often some other respiratory infection. Unlike the common cold, the "flu" typically comes on rather abruptly with high fever, headache, cough, sore throat, fatigue and muscle aches. Vomiting and diarrhea may occur with some strains but these symptoms are usually due to some other virus.

We can expect future outbreaks of influenza to cause more problems than in the past, not because the virus is changing but because we are. As we age our immune system becomes less protective. Our older population is much more likely to be obese and diabetic, conditions that weaken the immune system further, making it more likely that complications such as pneumonia will occur. Morbidly obese persons are especially prone to complications, including death.

For these reasons it's more important than ever for everyone, including children, to receive the influenza vaccine on a yearly basis. Influenza is a leading cause of hospitalization, especially among seniors. Secondary infection caused by the Staphylococcus bacterium can cause devastating pneumonia and other problems. The current epidemic of antibiotic-resistant "staph" known as MRSA (Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus) should be a major incentive for getting the vaccine.

You can't get influenza from the influenza vaccine. The injectable form consists of a killed virus and the newer intranasal vaccine is a weakened strain that provides immunity without causing illness. Persons who claim to have gotten influenza from the vaccine did not. If they received the vaccine from a physician after the onset of the flu season they were likely to have been infected in the waiting room as they sat near coughing patients. The incubation period of influenza is usually 2 to 4 days but it takes about two weeks for the vaccine to take effect. It's no surprise that they connect the vaccine to their symptoms.

Influenza can be deadly. Don't take any chances.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at