Cheating is good. At least when it comes to the flu.
“Flu vaccines are like a cheat sheet for the immune system,” said Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation President Stephen Prescott, M.D. “Rather than suffering through the flu while your body figures out how to fight the virus, it gets the answers ahead of time and short-circuits the entire process.”
In the U.S., about 200,000 people are hospitalized and 36,000 die annually because of the influenza virus. Worldwide, the death toll each year can reach as high as 500,000.
“Influenza season can hit as early as October and run all the way through May,” he said. “Once it starts, it spreads fast.”
The first thing the flu virus does when it infects a person is to colonize in the respiratory system, so coughing, sneezing and even talking expel droplets of moisture carrying the flu.
“Not only does it spread well from person to person, it’s incredibly efficient at taking over cells inside the body,” he said. “The virus literally gets inside of cells, wresting control of the nucleus and starts pumping out copies.”
When an infected cell dies, it releases the replicated virus into the body so that it can take over more cells. Once it gets into the bloodstream, flu symptoms like fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, head and body aches and fatigue begin to appear.
But avoiding all that pain is easy, Prescott said. Just cheat and get the influenza vaccine.
Flu shots actually include three influenza vaccines, which are filled with dead or weakened versions of the flu virus. Once they’re injected into the bloodstream, the body’s immune system dispatches white blood cells to identify the intruders and determine how to defeat them.
White blood cells draw up plans for proteins called antibodies that will kill the viruses and produce a surplus that can be used if you come into contact with the flu.
“The sooner you get vaccinated, the sooner your body can make the antibodies,” Prescott said. “It takes about two weeks after receiving a vaccine shot for the body to develop protection against the flu.”
Why get another flu vaccine every year? Because influenza viruses are constantly mutating, and the immune system needs to be prepared for the newest iterations, he said.
“Flu shots are available at doctors’ offices, drug stores and even Wal-Mart,” he said. “When something can do so much good and is so easy to get, unless your doctor tells you not to, there’s no excuse not to get a flu shot.”