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The Truth About The Flu Vaccine – A Tale of Two Patients

IMG_2044 copyWhen it comes to vaccinations, patients often ask me a couple simple questions. Here are the answers. I’ve gotten my flu shot annually since medical school. Both my children have gotten their vaccinations as scheduled.

As a doctor, I understand the scientific reason for vaccinations.

Only until recently, during a particularly bad flu season, did I feel and see the amazing protective power of the vaccinations.

Her story was fairly typical. A young woman in her 20s was accompanied by her mother. The patient wore an overcoat which covered her pajamas. She curled up on my exam table looking particularly ill. Looking exhausted, she reporting having a high fever at 104 F, profound body aches, and a dry hacking cough.

“I feel like I’m dying.”

Anytime a young adult is accompanied by her mother, someone is understandably worried. It isn’t the young adult. Despite her youth, she looked quite ill.

After a complete examination, the patient and her mother are reassured that her illness is due to the influenza virus or the flu. There is not much treatment except for rest and plenty of fluids. They can expect gradual improvement over the next few days. Some patients may not feel completely back to normal for a couple of weeks. A test of nasal discharge confirms the illness as influenza the following day.

The next patient had the identical story, except he looked too good to be ill. In his late 30s, he reported the sudden onset of profound body aches, a history of high fever at 104 F, and fatigue. He was in bed for about a day or two. His temperature was now getting back to normal and was feeling much better. He sat upright, well-dressed, and didn’t look particularly sick.

It sounded like the flu, but he looked just too good.

A test of nasal discharge confirms the illness as influenza the following day.

The difference? The man has asthma. Patients with asthma are recommended to get the influenza vaccine annually, which he did a month earlier. When the flu season hit, his body was exposed to the influenza virus. The good news was since his immune system was already primed by the vaccine to react to such an attack, it rapidly mounted an immune response. As a result, he recovered much more quickly. The other patient, though much younger, wasn’t immunized. When the influenza virus attacked her body, her immune system wasn’t prepared in advance. It still had a learning curve before it could mount an effective response. It never had a chance to for a dress rehearsal and learn from a vaccine. This learning curve takes time. As a result, the patient gets more ill as the body tries to figure out what to do.

Intellectually I always knew the importance of vaccinations. With that patient I could see and feel the importance.

A few months later, the most common question I received from my young 20 year olds was, “Hey doc, when’s the flu shot coming out? Don’t want to go through that again!”

Any questions?

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Do you worry about whether you are getting the best medical care? Does your doctor seem rushed? Not answering your questions?

Wouldn’t it be great if you had an easy way to get these answers?


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