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A major part of self care involves taking advantage of preventative care options. Yes, this does include vaccinations. While most vaccinations are recommended and sometimes required (especially for students involved in the health care fields) for certain travel and employment opportunities, you should still be aware of yearly doses like the flu shot, boosters for vaccines you got when you were younger, or first-time doses you might still need.

Vaccines are one of the best possible ways to protect your health and the health of those around you—plus, they can prevent you from taking the blame for spreading that nasty flu around the office. Other good news? Vaccines are easy to get.

We want to make the immunization process as painless as possible, so here’s what you need to know about a couple of the most important vaccines—what it is, why it’s so necessary, and how to get it.

Student perspective

“[Vaccines] prepare your body with antibodies against that specific virus or illness to protect you from getting sick.”
—Name withheld, second-year student, Glendale Community College, California

We want to make the immunization process as painless as possible, so here’s what you need to know about a couple of the most important vaccines—what they are, why they’re so necessary, and how to get them.

The influenza (flu) vaccine

Why you need it

Despite how commonly we hear about it, the flu isn’t something you want to mess around with (most of the time, when people think they have the flu, it’s actually a less serious viral infection). “Seasonal flu is a serious, highly contagious respiratory illness that affects approximately 5 to 20 percent of individuals each year,” says Dr. Lisa Ipp, associate director of adolescent medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, a medical school in New York City. “Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tells us that of those who get the flu, over 200,000 are hospitalized and tens of thousands die from flu-related complications.”

More likely than landing you in the hospital, getting the flu could really set you back in class or at work. On average, the flu lasts about eight days, and during that time you’ll be more likely to miss appointments and visit the doctor, according to a 2010 study published in PLOS One. Research published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases found that 46 percent of college students did poorly on an assignment after getting the flu.

When researchers from the PLOS One study modeled the effect of the vaccine, they found that if just 20 percent of people [in a community] got their flu shot, the number of people who would get the flu that season would drop from 69 percent (if no one got vaccinated) to less than 50 percent. The researchers also found that if just 60 percent of people [in that community] got vaccinated, less than 1 percent of that population would be likely to end up with the flu. This process is called herd immunity—and it works.

Key facts about the seasonal flu vaccine

The CDC recommends everyone get a flu vaccine each year. In an area with people operating in close quarters, such as an office space, the virus can spread crazy fast. “Without a flu shot, your immune system can’t protect you against the flu because the virus mutates from year to year,” says Dr. Davis Smith, staff physician at the University of Connecticut. Plus, getting yourself vaccinated will help protect the very young and the very old—such as kids or grandparents—who are “vulnerable to serious complications of flu because they don’t have the pulmonary and other reserve to tolerate the ravages of this lower respiratory track infection.”

When to get it

Every year, as soon as it becomes available, which is usually September–January (and sometimes later).

How it works

The flu vaccine covers the three or four strains most likely to land you in bed with chills, aches, and a fever. Each year, the experts predict which strains will be the most common and come up with the flu shot formula that will protect against them. The vaccine is currently available as both an injection and a nasal spray; however, the CDC may recommend one over the other in a given season. Check the current CDC guidelines to make sure you’re getting the recommended version.

Flu guidelines (CDC)

The flu vaccine will not give you the flu (no matter how much your friend swears she got sick from her flu shot). The vaccine works by causing your body to develop antibodies about two weeks after you get it—so if you do get sick after getting your shot, that means you were already exposed to the germs or were exposed in that two-week window.

How to get it

Flu season lasts from fall to spring, but if you haven’t gotten vaccinated yet, you still can (and should), according to the CDC. Check in with your health care provider to get your seasonal flu vaccine. You can also find the vaccine at most community clinics and pharmacies, including CVS and Walgreens. The flu shot typically costs around $40–$70, but under the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies are required to cover it in full. Make sure you check with your provider before you go—some insurance companies require you to get the vaccine from your doctor (not a pharmacy) for the cost to be covered.

Vaccine finder

Older African American man receiving vaccine


Why you need it

The Tdap vaccine offers triple threat protection against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis—three diseases that are rare but serious.

Tetanus, which you can get when bacteria gets into cuts, kills about 10 percent of people who contract it, says the CDC, and causes severely painful muscle tightening and stiffness. Diphtheria, while extremely rare, isn’t something to mess with—it can cause breathing problems, heart failure, paralysis, and even death. Pertussis—better known as whooping cough—is slightly more common. It can cause severe coughing spells—we’re talking coughing so hard you can fracture your own ribs—that are grave enough to land 2 percent of adolescents who contract it in the hospital with serious complications.

The vaccine has all but eradicated these scary diseases (reported cases of tetanus and diphtheria have dropped by about 99 percent, and cases of pertussis have dropped by about 80 percent, according to the CDC), but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to get vaccinated. The CDC reported a massive spike in cases of whooping cough in 2012, and rates of infections have remained higher than in decades past because of the recent anti-vaccine movement, according to experts at the National Institutes of Health. Double-check and make sure you got the shot.

How and when to get it

The Tdap vaccine is recommended for 11- and 12-year-olds, but if you didn’t get it as a preteen, you should still get it ASAP, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC. After you’ve had your Tdap vaccine, you’ll need a Td booster shot (to renew your protection against tetanus and diphtheria) every 10 years.

Again, start with your current health care provider. You can also check out the local pharmacy or clinic.

Vaccine finder

Female patient talking with male doctor

Vaccine side effects and safety

All vaccines can have some side effects—usually mild redness or swelling around the site of the shot (Tdap tends to leave you with a sore arm). You might also get a mild headache or flu-like symptoms right after getting a vaccine, so make sure to ask the health care provider giving you the vaccination what to expect. However, all of these vaccines have been through rigorous testing. There’s absolutely no scientific evidence that these vaccines cause diseases or serious side effects (such as autism), according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

It’s important to remember that any small side effects you might experience are nothing compared to the massive, science-backed benefits you’ll get by getting vaccinated. The bottom line: Staying on top of your shots is a super-easy way to boost your health and help protect your community.

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Article sources

Lizzy Appleby, MSW, youth program manager at Angles reproductive healthcare clinic, Illinois.

Lisa Ipp, MD, associate director of adolescent medicine, Weill Cornell Medicine, New York.

Divya Patel, PhD, assistant professor, Texas Collaborative for Healthy Mothers and Babies (an affiliate of the University of Texas System).

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