11/13/2018 15:57 EST | Updated 11/14/2018 12:34 EST

Get Flu Shots Early In The Season, Canadian Officials Advise

The effectiveness of the vaccine takes about two weeks to kick in.

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The flu shot should be available across drugstores and doctors' offices across Canada by now.

Public health officials say it's time to get the flu shot — not only to help prevent contracting potentially deadly viruses but to also avoid spreading the nasty respiratory bug to others.

Officials with the Public Health Agency of Canada advise Canadians to get the flu shot close to the start of flu season, as it takes about two weeks following immunization to develop protection against influenza.

"If you get it early in the season, it definitely can help reduce the symptoms of the flu should you actually get it. But this virus is active throughout the year, so anytime is beneficial," Dr. Vesna Radivojevic told HuffPost Canada.

Parents of needle-averse kids can instead opt for immunization with FluMist, a nasal product. And a high-dose shot is available for seniors aged 65-plus, who are often at higher risk for severe complications from influenza, which in some cases can be fatal.

The flu shot is available at doctor's offices and pharmacies across Canada.

Watch "Your 2-Minute Guide To Getting Flu Shots In Canada." Story continues below.

Effectiveness in 2018

This year's vaccine has been designed to protect against influenza A (H1N1 and H3N2) and influenza B.

"The flu shot is formulated to keep up with the viruses as they are constantly changing/mutating every season, so it's needed every year because of this change," says Dr. Radivojevic.

Dr. Sarah Cook told HuffPost Canada that influenza immunization has been shown to reduce the number of physician visits, hospitalizations and deaths in high-risk adults.

"In nursing homes, the flu vaccine is 50 per cent to 60 per cent effective in preventing hospitalization and 80 per cent effective in preventing death from a flu complication," says Cook.

In February, the CDC stated that the flu shot reduced people's risk of going to the doctor for flu-related visit by 36 per cent overall. The shot was 25 per cent effective against H3N2, which was the main strain that circulated during the 2017-2018 flu season.

Health Canada says that influenza and pneumonia are ranked among the top 10 leading causes of death among the Canadian population.

The provincial Ontario government has said that the flu shot is 40 per cent effective at reducing both influenza A and B viruses.

Health Canada says that influenza and pneumonia are ranked among the top 10 leading causes of death among the Canadian population. Health officials say that extreme complications from contracting the flu include sinus and ear infections, pneumonia, and inflammation of the heart or brain, which can land an infected person in the hospital and in some cases even result in death.

Those most vulnerable to complications include very young children, the elderly, people with underlying heart and respiratory conditions, and those with weakened immune systems.

An average of 23,000 laboratory-confirmed cases of influenza are reported each year in Canada to the FluWatch program, Canada's national surveillance system that monitors the spread of influenza and influenza-like illnesses.

According to Canada's National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI), 12,200 influenza related hospitalizations occur on average in the country each year. The actual numbers can vary from year to year depending on the severity of the flu season.

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There are approximately 3,500 deaths related to influenza on average each year in Canada, according to NACI. The highest mortality rate typically occurs among adults 65 years of age and older.

Potential side effects and symptoms

Doctors say that some are hesitant to get the shot due to fears about complications or side effects.

"It is recommended that you wait in the office up to 15 min post injection to make sure there are no other immediate reactions," says Dr. Radivojevic.

She says that most people will tolerate the vaccine fine, but a small number can have a reaction such as feeling faint, shortness of breath and general malaise or tiredness, as well as a potential sore arm for one-two days.

"In extreme cases, an allergic reaction can occur and physicians and/or pharmacist are prepared to handle those situations. But those are rare," she says.

The Conversation
Get your flu shot early to avoid getting sick and spreading the virus to others.

Dr. Cook says that another contraindication to the flu shot is having previously developed Guillain-Barre syndrome within six weeks of a previous flu vaccination.

Can you get the flu shot when you're sick?

Most people can still get the flu shot if they're currently sick, Dr. Radivojevic says, but this is up to the assessment of a physician.

Dr. Cook says that if you have a fever with a temperature over 99.5, then you should hold off until the fever dissipates. She also stresses that the shot will NOT make you sick, "you CANNOT get the flu from the flu shot."

"Most people are eligible to get the vaccine, however there are some who should not: people with certain medical conditions, people with allergies to any of the vaccine components," says the family doctor. "It is recommended to speak with your physician."

There are always those who choose not to get vaccinated out of fear.

For kids — and even some adults — with an aversion to needles, one pharmacy chain has come up with a way to help take the sting out of the flu shot.

Whole Health Pharmacy Partners, a national network of independent pharmacies, has introduced a virtual reality program to provide a distraction while baring one's arm for the dreaded jab.

Participating pharmacies offer a list of 10 YouTube videos that can be accessed via the patient's cellphone and viewed through virtual reality goggles provided by the stores.

"The patient chooses whether they want to be immersed in a room full of puppies or they want to go into a diving experience with dolphins, or space exploration, or a beach in the Maldives," said Saleema Bhaidani, director of pharmacy innovation and professional affairs for Whole Health.

"The good thing about virtual reality is that you put this headset on them — they're completely immersed, so they can't see the needle," she said.

"So if you distract them from looking at (the needle), that can decrease the perception of pain quite dramatically."

With files from Canadian Press

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