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As always, October marks the return of spooky yard decorations, puffy jackets, and pumpkin-spiced everything—and flu outbreaks. The regularity with which flu outbreaks occur might make the illness seem innocuous, but make no mistake: the flu is nothing to take lightly. According to the Center for Disease Control, “Between 1976 and 2007, estimates of flu-associated deaths in the United States range from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000 people [per season].” Luckily, seasonal flu vaccines provide a quick and painless way to protect your system from infection this flu season.

The vast majority of people killed by the flu have weakened immune systems, including the elderly and the very young, but even the most robust immune systems can fall victim. The flu virus is a uniquely scary pathogen; it mutates so quickly that a new vaccine is needed every year to fend off the latest, adapted form. These vaccines, delivered in the form of an intravenous shot, develop antibodies in your body that help fend off infection from the virus. The antibodies take around two weeks to develop, so medical professionals encourage everybody to get their flu shots early in the season, to allow their systems time to respond to the vaccine to fight against a potential infection.

The CDC recommends that everyone over six months of age receive an annual flu shot to prevent against individual illnesses and community-wide epidemics. (After all, even if you have faith in your healthy immune system, inoculating yourself against the flu can protect vulnerable populations around you, such as infants and pregnant folks.) However, the flu affects everybody differently, which is why a variety of shots are offered by medical clinics. To find out where to get your flu shot, use the Flu Vaccine Finder or call 211 (211info.org).

While certain side effects (such as dizziness, hives, and difficulty breathing) have been reported after receiving a flu shot, they are almost always completely safe. Contrary to rumor, receiving a shot can not give you the flu. According to vaccines.gov, “The flu vaccine contains either inactivated (killed) flu viruses that cannot cause illness or no flu viruses at all.” As a result of the Affordable Care Act, the cost of the vaccine is covered by most health insurance plans, and can be purchased for $30 for those without insurance.    

Even with the vaccine, nobody is 100 percent protected from contracting the flu—recent studies show that the vaccine reduces the risk of flu by about 50 to 60 percent. So, as always, the best offense is a good defense. Keep (or start) eating consciously, exercising regularly, and getting plenty of sleep to keep your immune system strong this flu season. And if you haven’t already, take a trip to the nearest pharmacy or clinic offering flu shots and get yourself that extra boost. The next time you’re next to somebody who’s sneezing on the bus or coughing at work, you’ll be glad you did.

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