Nurses: Take your shot

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Dr. Anthony Fiore
Dr. Anthony Fiore
It's been said, “nurses are the heartbeat of the healthcare system.” Without them, the system could not survive.

Sometimes, however, in their dedication to caring for others, nurses may forget to take care of themselves. This, too, can significantly burden the healthcare system, especially when nurses catch the flu. Statistics show that fewer than half (41.8%) of all healthcare workers were vaccinated against the flu during the 2005-2006 influenza season. In an era of nursing staff shortages and mandatory overtime, nurses stricken with flu and unable to work may be heaping additional responsibilities on their co-workers when.

But there is a quick and easy fix for this problem: a flu vaccine. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices) recommend that all healthcare professionals who work directly with patients get an annual influenza vaccination. Because flu illness is caused by flu viruses that change constantly and the vaccine is updated every year, annual vaccination is needed for protection to remain current.

Fact vs. fiction

So why aren't nurses and other healthcare professionals protecting themselves? 

It could be because even within the medical community, research indicates there's a great deal of misinformation circulating about the flu vaccine. Despite the well-known benefits of the influenza vaccine, common misconceptions persist.  

Fiction: The influenza vaccine can cause the flu.

Fact: This is untrue. The flu shot contains inactivated viruses and the nasal spray contains weakened strains that are too insignificant to cause flu illness. Many studies confirm this. If a person gets the flu following a flu vaccine, it means that person had been exposed to the virus at least three to five days prior to showing symptoms. It can take up to two weeks from the time the vaccine is administered for immunity to kick in.

Fiction: Nurses are immune to influenza, or have stronger immune systems, because they work around sick people every day.

Fact: Because influenza viruses are constantly changing, past exposure does not provide protection against new influenza virus strains.

Fiction: The vaccine's side effects are worse than getting the flu itself.

Fact: The most common side effects are redness and mild soreness at the injection site. These symptoms usually resolve themselves in one to two days. Individuals who choose to get the nasal vaccine can avoid these injection–related problems, but they can have nasal congestion or a runny nose for a day or two. The most serious side effect is an allergic reaction by those who have a severe allergy to eggs (the vaccine viruses are grown in eggs). For this reason, getting an influenza vaccination is not advised for people with an egg allergy. But egg allergies are rare, and severe allergic reactions are even rarer.

Fiction: The flu vaccine is not effective.

Fact: When there is a good match between circulating influenza virus strains and those in the vaccine, effectiveness rates have been as high as 70% to 90% in healthy adults. Although the vaccine does not prevent everyone from getting ill, vaccination can make your illness milder. Plus, the vaccine greatly reduces the chances of hospitalization and death.

The scoop on prevention

The role that nurses and other healthcare workers play in helping prevent influenza-related illness and death–especially in at-risk elderly patients and young children–cannot be underestimated.

Two easy options

The influenza vaccination remains the best way for nurses and others to protect themselves, their families and their patients during the annual influenza epidemic. Here are two options:

Intramuscular influenza vaccination: Administered by shot, this is one of few immunizations that is recommended for all healthcare professionals, regardless of any special conditions.

Live intranasal influenza vaccine: This live vaccine is approved for use in healthy people 5 to 49 years of age, who are not pregnant, and do not provide care for severely immuno-compromised people when they are in a protective environment, such as a bone marrow transplant unit. Most healthcare workers who are younger than 50 years of age can receive the intranasal vaccine if they choose.

Safe, not sorry

The role that nurses play in helping others is well known. Now it's time for nurses to consider how protecting themselves against the flu also will help them in their mission to protect others. 

For more information about influenza and the influenza vaccine, visit or call (800) CDC-INFO (800-232-4636).

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