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We don’t know quite yet what sort of flu season we’ve got ahead of us, according to Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who spoke at a joint influenza press conference with the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases on Thursday. “The bottom line here is there’s one thing to know about flu: It’s unpredictable,” he said. To that end, Frieden added, “Vaccination is the single most important step everyone 6 months of age and older can take to protect themselves and their families against influenza.”
If you’ve already done that, then go ahead and give yourself a pat on the back (or arm) for getting pricked — but don’t let your flu-fighting efforts stop there. Why? Because the flu shot isn’t guaranteed to keep you healthy, as it’s far from 100 percent effective. “The vaccine is, on average, around 40, 50 percent effective — in some situations, 60 to 70 percent effective,” Arnold Monto, M.D., a professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, told Yahoo Health. (Last year’s flu shot was about 61 percent effective, according to the CDC.)
This lack of surefire protection is no excuse to forego the flu shot, though, according to some experts. “If you’ve vaccinated, you’re less likely to have a severe case of influenza,” said Amesh Adalja, M.D., an infectious disease doctor at the University of Pittsburgh. In other words, if you do develop a breakthrough infection, it will likely be a less miserable version of the flu.
So if you do add the flu shot to your fall to-do list, be sure to beef up the effectiveness of the vaccine with these simple strategies:
Get vaccinated ASAP.
Doctors used to advise waiting as long as possible for a vaccination, under the assumption that its power would wear off over time, Monto told Yahoo Health. However, he said, “Some of our studies suggest that’s not the case.” In fact, waiting too long may be a bad thing: It takes about 14 days for your body to produce antibodies against the flu virus after receiving the vaccine. “If you get the flu within two weeks of getting your shot, it’s probably because the shot hasn’t had enough time to stimulate your immune system,” Adalja said.
That means holding off until December could leave you vulnerable during the peak of flu season. “Get the vaccine whenever the vaccine is available,” Monto suggested. “Don’t play roulette with trying to get it too late, because we might have an early season.” In 2009, for example, the flu season peaked in October, rather than around Christmas.
Spring for the high-power vaccine.
Not all flu vaccines are created equal. “Trivalent” varieties protect against two strains of influenza A, as well as one strain of influenza B. Quadrivalent vaccines do all of that — while also shielding against a second influenza B strain. “The first year the quadrivalent vaccine was available was last year,” Adalja said. “This year, it’s much more widely available.”
Although it may cost you a little more, it appears to be worth seeking the extra protection the quadrivalent flu shot affords. “In recent years, we’ve had two strains of influenza B circulating, and causing about equal proportions of visits,” Adalja said. Since trivalent vaccines only shield against one B strain, you might be the unlucky vaccinated person who gets sick if exposed to the other B strain. In fact, “we’ve been increasingly seeing severe cases of influenza due to influenza B,” said Adalja. Health-care providers and pharmacies often offer both types of flu shots, Monto said, but you should call ahead to ask if the extra-strength version is available.
Lift weights first.
Pumping iron may pump up your body’s response to the flu shot. In a 2007 study, published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, researchers asked people either to sit quietly for 25 minutes or to perform bicep curls and side arm raises six hours before receiving a flu shot. Eight weeks later, the weight-lifting group showed a stronger immune response to the vaccine. Why? By targeting their arms, the exercisers may have increased blood flow to the vaccination site, leading to a more efficient immune response. Plus, “any time you exercise, that involves some inflammation,” said Adalja. This may cause immune cells to flock to the area, further increasing the vaccine’s efficacy, he said.
Go to bed early.
Skimping on sleep doesn’t just give you bags under your eyes — it could detract from your flu shot. There’s evidence that sleep deprivation —whether chronic, or even just the night before or after you get vaccinated— may tamp down your body’s immune response to the shot, said Arik Prather, an assistant professor at the UC San Francisco School of Medicine, who has studied vaccine efficacy.
What’s the shuteye–flu shot connection? When you sleep, your immune system deploys T and B cells to lymphoid organs, where they’re exposed to any viruses invading your body. “That provides the opportunity to mount a necessary response,” Prather told Yahoo Health. This same immune process happens the night after you get pricked. “By getting a flu vaccine, you develop memory T cells and B cells that, when exposed to the actual virus, come to life and fervently attack it,” Prather explained. So aim for 7 to 9 hours a night — especially right before and after receiving the vaccine.
Stress really does show up in every part of your body. Young, healthy adults with high levels of mental tension exhibited a 12 percent weaker immune response immediately after receiving the flu shot, compared to low-stress people, a recent study in Psychosomatic Medicine found. Four months later, the high-tension group had 17 percent lower antibody levels than their less-stressed peers. “If you have a high level of stress, you have high levels of cortisol,” said Adalja. “We know that cortisol is an immune-suppressing substance. That may block the response to the vaccine.” So light those pumpkin-scented candles, go for a nightly walk, hit the yoga mat — just find your stress-busting strategy, and stick to it.