When fall rolls around, it brings more than just Starbucks pumpkin spice lattes and Halloween. It’s also the time of year when doctors start diagnosing more and more cases of the flu. Last year, a staggering 80,000 people died of flu-related complications, including 180 children. The scary flu season has many wondering if they need to get vaccinated this year, particularly caregivers like nannies, who work with young children. If you’ve been contemplating whether or not to get the shot, the answer is most definitely yes, and the time to do it is ASAP.
Dr. Tanya Altmann, bestselling author and pediatrician and the founder of Calabasas Pediatrics and the Calabasas Pediatric Wellness Center, tells Westside Nannies that getting a flu vaccine is essential for caregivers, not only to protect the little ones in their care, but also because a bout of the flu can mean a lot of missed time at work. Even if the children in your care are vaccinated, she says, get the shot anyway. “The flu vaccine isn’t 100% protective, but what it does do is it dramatically decreases the chance that you will catch the flu and also that you will have complications from the flu,” says Altmann. “Having that extra layer to protect the children is important. And also, if the caregiver gets the flu, they’re going to be out for two weeks, and that can put a strain on the entire family.”
The flu is not a simple illness. People who catch the flu are often debilitatingly sick for anywhere from one to two weeks, with symptoms like fever, headache, chills, body aches, and sometimes even gastrointestinal symptoms. People who have the flu are also at risk for serious complications like pneumonia, bronchitis, and heart problems. Babies and young children are most seriously affected by the flu, but the best way to prevent that, says Altmann, is by “cocooning” little ones in a circle of family, friends, and caregivers who have all been vaccinated. “If you look at all the flu deaths from last year, the majority of them were in non-vaccinated people or in infants where everyone around them did not get the flu vaccine,” she adds.
Altmann says the best time to get the shot is prior to trick-or-treating, but if you missed that deadline, there is still time. Most doctor’s offices, urgent care facilities, and pharmacies carry the flu shot well into November and even December. While the flu typically makes its earliest appearances in October, Altmann says it’s worse in later months as families gather for big holidays like Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas. “The flu shot takes about two weeks to take effect,” Altmann explains. “So now is the time to get it if you haven’t already. We used to say that flu season was October through April but it does vary from year to year, and the flu is one of the most unpredictable viruses.”
Despite the importance of getting the flu shot, many are still skeptical of the vaccine. Some cite concerns about the ingredients in the shot, while others swear they end up getting the flu every time they get vaccinated. But Dr. Altmann says these are common myths and that the flu shot is actually very safe.
“There are different vaccines available,” she notes. “In my practice, I order the preservative-free single dose quadrivalent vaccine, so if you are concerned about thimerosal — if you have a pregnant mom or a child under age 3 — then I usually recommend asking for the preservative-free [vaccine].”
Thimerosal is an ethyl mercury-based preservative that is included in multi-dose vials of vaccines. Per the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), it is safe and has been used in multi-dose vaccine vials for decades; however, many who are against vaccines point to Thimerosal as a worrying ingredient due to fears about exposure to mercury. While Dr. Altmann advises asking for a vaccine that is preservative-free in some cases, she says there’s really no reason to worry about Thimerosal. “I think getting any flu shot is better than not getting one,” she says.
For people who aren’t into the shot, Dr. Altmann recommends opting for the Flu Mist, which is what she chose for her own family this year. Previously, the mist was pulled from the market over concerns that it was less effective than the shot and left people vulnerable to illness. But Dr. Altmann says data on the new and improved Flu Mist looks promising, and it’s a good option for anyone from age 2 to 49, as long as they don’t have a history of asthma, respiratory issues, or other chronic illness.
And what about those people who swear the flu shot gives them the flu? It’s an anecdote many of us hear from friends year after year. But the thing is, says Dr. Altmann, that’s not actually possible. The vaccine does not contain an active virus and cannot give you the flu. But if you do feel like you get sick every time you get a flu shot, it could be that you’re waiting too long to get vaccinated.
“Typically I think that most people who would say that [they get sick] wait too long and don’t get the flu vaccine when they aren’t exposed to a lot of other viruses,” says Dr. Altmann. “So you get a vaccine and then you happen to get sick from something else going around. In those cases, get the flu vaccine earlier. Get it in September, get it in early October, so that way you won’t be getting sick from other germs going around and you won’t be associating the vaccine with getting sick.”
No flu shot is 100 percent effective, but the benefits of getting vaccinated greatly outweigh any potential concerns. As a nanny, you do have a very real responsibility for the health and well-being of the children in your care, and you certainly want to protect yourself throughout flu season as well. The flu vaccine is a quick, safe, and relatively painless option that could make all the difference for the families that rely on you.