Published on October 23, 2020
Why Should CLL Patients Get a Flu Shot?
Now is the time to get your seasonal influenza (flu) shot. Many doctors — and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — recommend getting vaccinated for the flu in mid-to-late October.1 The flu shot is especially critical for patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) because they are more likely to have a compromised immune system.
The Flu Season and COVID-19
During the 2019-2020 flu season, which lasted through April 2020 and overlapped with the first wave of the novel coronavirus, influenza affected approximately 38 million people in the United States. It caused 18 million visits to a health care provider, 400,000 hospitalizations and 22,000 deaths, according to the CDC.2 This flu season, doctors are concerned about the double whammy of COVID-19 and the flu.
Infections in People with Cancer
Influenza can be especially serious for patients with CLL because their immune system is already fighting the good fight. Oncologists generally recommend the flu vaccine to their patients.
“I would encourage all my CLL patients to get flu shots,” said Dr. Jeff Sharman from the Willamette Valley Cancer Institute and Research Center and The US Oncology Network. “The response is nearly universal. Everybody always says, ‘Well, I got a flu shot and I still got sick.’”
But that’s not how it works, Dr. Sharman explained. “A flu shot does not prevent all illness. The flu [shot] prevents flu. And patients with CLL get more complications from flu because their immune system has a cancer in it. CLL is a cancer of the immune system, so to whatever extent you can give yourself a head start to fight off flu, I would encourage patients to do so.”
In addition to getting a flu shot, patients with CLL can use lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic to further protect themselves from flu viruses: wear a mask, avoid public spaces and public transportation, wash your hands, maintain a social distance of at least six feet, and ask friends and family members to stay away if they are experiencing flu-like symptoms.
When to Get the Flu Vaccine?
Flu season doesn’t end when winter ends. It can creep into the beginning of spring when crocus and tulips are starting to sprout. Get vaccinated too early and you run the risk of reduced protection later on. However, because it can take up to two weeks for antibodies to develop and provide flu protection, you also don’t want to get vaccinated too late. Experts agree that October is the ideal month to get the flu vaccine. If you have not yet received a flu shot, talk to your health care team to make a plan.
How Effective is the Flu Shot?
The flu shot is designed to be effective against the strain of flu that is targeted for any given year. It seems like a gamble, but it is a gamble in your favor. Patients who get the flu shot are more protected than those who abstain; because even if they get a different flu strain, the vaccine still offers more protection than none at all and their symptoms will be less severe. The American Cancer Society recommends that cancer patients get the flu shot that has an inactive (dead) flu virus.
Flu Shot Side Effects
The flu shot may cause some discomfort in the area where it was given. A small percentage of people will experience mild flu symptoms such as a runny nose or headache. That is a normal reaction to the vaccine and not the flu itself. Although they are rare, severe reactions can occur. If you have trouble breathing, swelling around the eyes or mouth, or feel dizzy, that is the time to reach out to your general practitioner to offset these symptoms.
Compare the flu shot to wearing a seat belt. The seat belt may give you a bruise if you get into a car accident, but it can also save your life.
Where Should I Get a Flu Shot?
Most drug stores, like CVS and Walgreens, offer free flu shots depending on your health insurance. Some grocery stores also have in-house pharmacies that offer flu shots. As an added bonus, they often give patrons a book of coupons to use in the store.
The more you know, the safer you can be during this and every flu season. Be well.
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1Flu Vaccine for 2020-2021 Season. CDC.
2Estimated Influenza Illnesses, Medical visits, Hospitalizations, and Deaths in the United States — 2019–2020 Influenza Season. CDC.
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