The message is out there: the single best way to prevent the flu is to get a flu vaccine each season. You may have heard it on the news: flu vaccine is recommended for everyone age 6 months and older.
Everyone? What about cancer patients and survivors? The short answer is, yes. The longer answer is that while having cancer doesn’t put one at increased risk for getting the flu, cancer patients and survivors have an increased risk of complications from the flu virus, which can include pneumonia, hospitalization, and even death.
Here’s a quick guide to influenza and flu vaccination for cancer patients, survivors, and caregivers.
What is influenza or the flu?
The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat, and lungs. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death. While many people use the term “stomach flu” to describe an illness, the influenza-type flu that you can be vaccinated against is a respiratory disease and not a stomach or intestinal disease. Symptoms of the flu include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills, and extreme tiredness.
As a cancer patient/survivor, how can I protect myself against the flu?
Getting a flu shot, not the nasal spray, is the most effective way to prevent the flu. Because cancer patients are at an increased risk of getting pneumonia you should also talk to a health care provider about the pneumococcal vaccine, which can protect against pneumonia. Additionally, there are several everyday steps that you can do to help protect yourself against the flu.
- Wash hands regularly with soap and water.
- Avoid close contact with sick people. Six feet is generally thought to be a safe distance.
- Try to stay away from small children who attend day care or school, or are in other group settings, as germs spread easily in these environments.
- Avoid touching your mouth, eyes, and nose as germs are spread this way. Also, use tissues and throw away immediately after use.
- Practice good health habits including getting plenty of sleep and exercise, drinking plenty of fluids, and eating healthy food.
- Encourage your caregivers and those you live with or see often to get vaccinated for the flu to reduce your potential to encounter the flu virus. This year in Nevada join others online by sharing a post-vaccination photo of you and a caregiver or family member on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #2AgainstFlu.
What type of flu vaccination should I get?
Cancer patients and survivors should get the flu shot, which is made of inactive or dead virus. This includes the intradermal flu vaccine. People with cancer should NOT get the nasal spray flu vaccine as these are made with weakened live virus and are not suitable for those with compromised immune systems.
I got vaccinated last year. Do I need to do it again, and if so, when?
When most healthy people with regular immune systems are vaccinated, their bodies produce antibodies and they are protected throughout the flu season, even as antibody levels decline over time. People with weakened immune systems, such as those with cancer, may not generate the same amount of antibodies after vaccination; further, their antibody levels may drop more quickly when compared to healthy people. For everyone, getting vaccinated each year provides the best protection against influenza throughout flu season. It’s important to get a flu vaccine every year, even if you got vaccinated the season before and the viruses in the vaccine have not changed for the current season.
Flu seasons are unpredictable and can be severe. Vaccination can be done as early as September or as soon as vaccine is available. Flu season can begin as early as October and seasonal flu activity usually peaks in January, February or later.
Where can I get a flu shot?
Flu vaccines are offered in many locations, including doctor’s offices, clinics, health departments, pharmacies and college health centers. They also are offered by many employers, and are even available in some schools. So next time you see a sign that says, “Get Your Flu Vaccine Here”, stop in. Or make an appointment with your doctor or clinic today. Additional resources about the influenza vaccine and vaccination locations are available at www.InfluenceNevada.org
As a cancer patient, what if I’ve been exposed to the flu or have flu symptoms?
Call your doctor right away. She may offer a quick test that uses a sample from your nose or throat to determine if you have the flu. These tests work best if done within one to two days of the start of symptoms. She may give you a prescription for anti-viral drugs to help keep you from getting the flu. These drugs work by keeping the virus from reproducing in your body, can make symptoms milder, and help reduce severe complications. Again, the anti-viral drugs work best if started within two days of getting sick.
For more information about influenza or the flu vaccine, talk to your doctor or nurse, visit http://www.cdc.gov/flu or call CDC at 1-800-CDC-INFO.
Information compiled from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Cancer Society, and Immunize Nevada.