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Lupus and the Flu Shot: What You Need to Know

While we are in the middle of the flu season, here are some important things to think about concerning the flu and flu vaccinations.

If you have lupus, you should strongly consider speaking to your doctor about getting a seasonal flu vaccine.  In this blog, we hope to answer any questions regarding this particular type of vaccination and calm any fears associated with it.  

Note: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that people get a flu vaccine by the end of October, but if you did not get yours then, you can still get its benefits throughout the season, even into January or later.

The flu vaccine is the best way to protect individuals against the top influenza viruses that experts predict will be the most common and problematic for the upcoming year.  Getting a flu shot can reduce flu illnesses, prevent flu-related hospitalizations, and protect people who have compromised immune systems and are more vulnerable to flu complications.

What exactly is influenza?

Influenza, or the ‘flu’ is a contagious disease that is most active every year typically between October and May. The flu is caused by influenza viruses and is spread primarily by coughing, sneezing, and other forms of close contact. 

What are the updates with the flu shot this year?

The CDC has a few updates for the 2018-2019 Flu Shot Season.  Each year, there are changes to the vaccine itself in order to target the most likely and most problematic strains of flu as they occur. 

One change to be aware of is that, after being removed from the market for two years, the nasal spray flu vaccine, called FluMist, is once again an option.  However, be aware.  This is a live attenuated influenza vaccine, and it is not recommended for those with lupus or anyone living with them or those taking immunosuppressive medications and others.  Definitely check with your healthcare provider to make sure you get the form of the flu vaccine that is best for you.  Click here for the latest information from the CDC.

Who gets the flu, and who should get the flu shot?

Anyone can get the flu virus. While the risk is highest among children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems are also more susceptible. The following high-risk groups can get much sicker than others with the same virus and should absolutely get the vaccine:

    • Infants and children younger than five but especially those younger than 2 years of age.
    • Women who will be pregnant during flu season.
    • Caregivers of children under the age of 5 but especially infants younger than 6 months of age (as they are too young to receive the flu vaccine.) To learn more about why all children should receive the flu vaccine, watch CDC’s video Why Flu Vaccination Matters: Personal Stories from Families Affected by Flu. You may also want to visit the Families Fighting Flu website.
    • Anyone with any condition that weakens the immune system, or those with chronic heart or lung conditions.
    • Those who live in nursing homes.
    • Anyone 65 years or older.
    • Anyone who comes in close contact with people in the high risk groups, i.e. healthcare workers, family members, babysitters, etc.

Why is it so important for those with lupus to get the flu shot?

During the 2017-2018 flu season the CDC estimates that approximately 960,000 Americans were hospitalized due to influenza, and approximately 79,000 died from flu complications. Most of the fatalities occur in the elderly, infants, and the immunosuppressed (those who have weakened immune systems). Flu can also lead to pneumonia, and make existing medical conditions worse. A pneumonia vaccine (called Prevnar 13) is also available and recommended for lupus patients. This is given as a shot and should be followed by a second dose five years after the first dose.

Those with the autoimmune disease lupus, are also at an increased risk for developing infections because the immune system in lupus patients negatively affects the way the body fights off foreign invaders like viruses and bacteria.  Many lupus patients take immunosuppressive medications to help control an overactive immune system. These medications can reduce the ability of the body to fight off foreign invaders such as the flu virus. This is why lupus patients should do everything possible to lower their chances of contracting the influenza virus.       Back to top

I got the flu shot last year; do I need to get it this year as well?

The answer is yes. Because flu viruses change every year, and even between seasons, it is very important to get the vaccine every year to insure that you are protected from the various strains. The CDC suggests that every person should get a flu shot yearly by the end of October to maximize their protection.  

How long does it take for the vaccine to take effect?

It takes about 2 weeks for protection to develop after the vaccination, and protection lasts several months to a year. So it is possible to get sick with the flu even after you have been vaccinated if: you may have been exposed to a flu virus shortly before getting vaccinated.  

Are there any reasons that I should NOT get the flu vaccine?

Here are three reasons that someone might not want to get the flu shot. Please discuss these with your physician if you have any concerns.

    1. If you have any severe, life-threatening allergies: If you have ever had a life-threatening allergic reaction after a dose of flu vaccine, or have a severe allergy to any part of this vaccine. Most, but not all types of flu vaccine contain a small amount of egg protein. If, for example, you have an allergy to gelatin, antibiotics, or eggs, you may be advised not to get vaccinated. The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology says the vaccine contains such a low amount of egg protein that it’s unlikely to cause an allergic reaction in those with an egg allergy. If, on the other hand, you have severe egg allergy (anaphylaxis), please speak with your physician before getting the flu shot to learn about other options.
    2. If you ever had Guillain-Barré Syndrome (a severe paralyzing illness, also called GBS): Some people with a history of GBS should not get this vaccine. If you are not sure about this or know you have had GBS, please discuss the flu shot with your doctor before receiving the vaccine.
    3. If you are not feeling well: It is usually okay to get flu vaccine when you have a mild illness, but you may be advised to wait and come back for the vaccine later if you have a fever. 

Are there any side effects of the vaccine?

There are possible side effects from the flu shot, however, the benefits of getting the vaccine outweigh the risks. Serious side effects are very rare, but if they do occur, it is usually within a few minutes to a few hours after the vaccine was given. Side effects can include:

  • Some experience redness, soreness, or swelling at the injection site.
  • Mild muscle aches
  • Low-grade fever

What are the symptoms of the flu?

  • fever/chills
  • headache
  • runny or stuffy nose
  • sore throat
  • muscle aches
  • fatigue
  • cough

What should I do if I think I might have the flu?

Antiviral medications should be taken within 48 hours, especially for those who are most at risk for complications. Please call your physician immediately if you start to feel sick or are having any of the above listed symptoms. It is very important to wait for at least 24 hours after your temperature has returned to normal (98.6) before returning to work, school, or traveling to avoid spreading the illness to others.  

When and where can I get the flu shot?

The flu season begins around October and can continue until as late as May, but it peaks in January or February. It is best to get the vaccine as soon as it is available in your area, but it is not too late in December, January or beyond. To find the nearest location for receiving a flu shot in your area, please visit flu.gov. Many neighborhood pharmacies such as Rite Aid, Walgreens, Safeway, CVS, etc. offer easy and convenient locations to get the flu shot from a certified immunizing pharmacist without needing an appointment or referral from a physician.

Please speak with your physician sooner than later about getting your seasonal flu shot. It’s not worth the risk if you have a compromised immune system from a disease like lupus. In fact, why not give them a call today?  Back to top  

 

References 

Influenza (flu). (2018). Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/index.htm
https://www.lupus.org/resources/are-flu-and-pneumonia-vaccines-safe-if-i-have-lupus
https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/prevention-15/vaccines/fact-sheet-vaccines

 

Author: Karrie Sundbom

Updated by Liz Heintz (2018)

 

All images unless otherwise noted are property of and were created by Kaleidoscope Fighting Lupus. To use one of these images, please contact us at info@kflupus.org for written permission; image credit and link-back must be given to Kaleidoscope Fighting Lupus. 

All resources provided by us are for informational purposes only and should be used as a guide or for supplemental information, not to replace the advice of a medical professional. The personal views expressed here do not necessarily encompass the views of the organization, but the information has been vetted as a relevant resource. We encourage you to be your strongest advocate and always contact your healthcare practitioner with any specific questions or concerns.