General Health Thursday February 2, 2012

Flu jabs vs. flu treatments

It's that time of year when flu warnings are doing the rounds and many of you are probably wondering whether it's worth getting a jab or whether you should simply deal with it when it happens. If you are just as confused as I am about flu and flu jabs, sit tight as I'll be looking at the difference between flu treatments and vaccines and when we should consider one over the other.

What's the difference between flu vaccinations and flu treatments?

Flu vaccinations are designed to prevent an influenza infection. In order to do this the jab contains a small amount of flu virus that is intended to stimulate the production of specific antibodies, so that when you do become infected, your body's immune system is already better able to deal with it. This is because it 'remembers' the previous immune response it had to this particular virus.

There are currently reports about a potential 'universal' flu jab that could protect against all types of flu, even unknown ones, which could make incidents such as the swine flu and Spanish flu much less likely in the future. This potential new vaccine will reportedly work to stimulate T-cells rather than antibodies and will therefore be able to provide long term immunity.

There is no immediate cure for flu; when you have it then it is pretty much up to your body's immune system to deal with it. Most commonly people use treatments that are more focussed on providing symptomatic relief, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen for aches and pains or treatments that can help you to sleep better if you are ill. However, treatments like Tamiflu help keep the flu virus from spreading and from leading to a full-blown infection, which is why Tamiflu needs to be taken as soon as possible after you've started noticing the first symptoms or could also be taken if you think that you may have been exposed to some form of the flu virus.

Who should get the jab?

Flu jabs on the NHS are mainly intended for people with vulnerable immune systems. These people include:

  • pregnant women
  • frontline healthcare workers
  • sole carers for an elderly person
  • people living in a care home
  • people aged 65 and over
  • people with chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma or bronchitis
  • heart disease
  • chronic hepatitis
  • diabetes
  • post-polio syndrome, stroke or transient ischemic attack
  • people with HIV or who's immune system has been weakened by chemo therapy

However, these are just the list of people that qualify for it on the NHS and anybody can request a flu vaccine privately if they are willing to pay for it. The reason for these at risk groups being isolated for the flu jabs, I believe, is because they have been proven as the most likely groups of people to die as a result of a flu infection or develop extremely serious complications.

The average person generally is able to recover quite successfully from flu infections without needing any kind of preventative treatment, which means that the National Health Services tends to prioritise the most vulnerable groups first in case of a flu pandemic, to ensure that they have enough vaccines to go around. However, it needs to be kept in mind that flu jabs change every single year, because influenza does too, which could mean that groups that are considered strong one year may be vulnerable the next, and it's not always evident at first, as was the case with the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918, which appeared to be more lethal in young adults than the conventional flu-vulnerable groups.

Advantages and disadvantages of the flu vaccine

One disadvantage of the flu vaccine option is that it's not available to everybody, but other than that there aren't that many disadvantages, in spite of the bad reputation vaccines tend to have. Providing that you don't have an allergy to egg yolk, the side effects are also not extremely bad, but they can be uncomfortable and can cause a person to experience muscle aches and mild fever as it takes effect.

The flu jab is also not effective immediately and it is possible for a person to fall ill before it's had a chance to fully cultivate enough antibodies in the body. The current way in which flu vaccinations work means that a vaccine may not always be available straight away, as a new strain may take time to identify.

Advantages and disadvantages of influenza treatment

Influenza treatment that help with symptomatic relief can be used with most types of influenza viruses, and allow you to be comfortable while your body deals with the virus effectively. Apart from Tamiflu or Ralenza, most of these treatments can't reduce the length of time you are ill, but they'll allow your body the rest it needs. Tamiflu can help provide symptomatic relief as well as cut down recovery time, because it works to contain the virus leaving it at the mercy of the immune system.

The majority of flu treatments are safe to use, but similarly to the jab, they might not be right for everybody, however they provide a potential way of dealing with an influenza infection in people who feel that they would rather not get vaccinated against influenza.

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