As fall comes around I hear people debating, “Should I get the flu shot?”, “Should I vaccinate my kids?”. I’m always surprised to hear just how hesitant people are to vaccinate.
The flu is a highly infectious and serious viral respiratory infection. Many viruses can give you the sniffles, but allow you to continue working or going to school. The flu, however, actually knocks you out, and flu symptoms can be quite severe and prolonged. In addition, bacterial infections (superinfections) can occur on top of the flu infection– those are situations which can truly overwhelm the lungs. Such a situation is especially dangerous for the elderly and the very young. It can even cause death.
People’s main concern with the influenza vaccine tends to be that the injection will actually give them the flu. This is not true. While the vaccine can cause soreness or redness at the site of the shot, pains in the joints, and even mild fever, it is nothing like the flu itself. A good excuse not to get vaccinated is if you have an egg allergy, in which case the vaccine is contraindicated, since the vaccine is developed in eggs.
Many people don’t get the flu vaccine, and they are okay. People with diabetes, however, shouldn’t take a chance. Most people with diabetes are not aware that for them, the flu can pose a much bigger threat than it does for people without diabetes.
When blood sugar levels are elevated, especially above 200mg/dL, the immune cells do not work as efficiently and therefore patients with diabetes may have abnormalities in immune function. Studies have shown that diabetics are sick longer with the flu, have a higher chance of ending up in the hospital, and even an increased risk of death. This is particularly true for patients who have diabetes complications, such as heart disease or kidney disease.
Also, once the patient gets the flu, the body is stressed, and it becomes much more difficult to control blood sugar levels. Often patients need to increase their insulin doses, or if they are not on insulin they might need to increase their medication or temporarily be on insulin in order to keep blood sugar controlled. People with diabetes also have a higher tendency to get dehydrated.
Fortunately there is sufficient evidence to show that people with diabetes generally have appropriate immune responses to the influenza vaccination. Getting the vaccination is effective in reducing complications of influenza, reducing hospital admissions during influenza epidemics, and even in decreasing the number of deaths.
The influenza virus is smart. It mutates slightly every year, and for us to keep up, a new vaccine must be manufactured annually. We have the tools to prevent influenza. We just have to make sure that the millions of people with diabetes are educated about the risks that influenza poses and encourage them to get a flu shot. It should be a matter of routine every fall.