In early February, my family was getting ready to take a much-needed warm-weather vacation.
We'd booked our tickets, double-checked the expiration dates on our passports and packed plenty of sunscreen.
I wasn't about to let flu season derail all of our plans.
Call me crazy — and some of my co-workers certainly did — I pulled my daughter out of day care several days before our departure. I convinced my husband to cancel a mid-week poker game. I washed my hands like a fanatic. I monitored every cough and sneeze in the newsroom like a hawk.
It sounds extreme, but it worked. Our getaway went off without a hitch.
And lest you've already forgotten, my paranoia was well-founded. Last flu season was awful.
One of my co-workers who came down with the flu in December said it was the sickest she'd ever been. And she got the flu shot.
"I felt like death," she said. "It was awful. It was every illness you could think of rolled into one."
Another co-worker, who was out of the office for nearly two weeks when she became sick with the flu earlier this year, described her symptoms this way:
"You know in 'Harry Potter,' the death eaters? It was like your soul had been sucked out."
Of course, the severity of the flu varies from season to season. Yes, last year was really bad. So bad, in fact, nearly 300 people in South Carolina died from it. Even so, it's too soon to tell how horrible it'll be this winter or when flu activity will peak or if the vaccine will be a good match.
That hasn't stopped retail pharmacies from seizing on an early marketing opportunity. If you've been paying any attention, you've likely seen ads for flu vaccines around town for weeks.
"Free flu shots."
"Get your flu shot here."
"Flu shots now available. No wait!"
All these billboards beg the question: Is it too early to get a vaccine?
Not necessarily, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
"DHEC flu clinics will begin Oct. 1, however primary care providers and pediatricians may have the vaccine earlier than Oct. 1," said Stephen White, DHEC's immunization division director.
While experts agree that flu vaccine effectiveness wears off after several months, an "early flu shot is better than no flu shot at all," a 2016 NPR report explained.
"Optimally, vaccination should occur before onset of influenza activity in the community," White said. "Because timing of the onset, peak and decline of influenza activity varies, the ideal time to start vaccinating cannot be predicted each season."
I'll get mine no later than mid-October and I'll make sure my daughter gets one at her pediatrician's office around the same time. To me, it's a no-lose scenario.
To be clear, a flu shot will not make you sick. It will offer at least a small measure of protection (and maybe much more). And regardless of what conspiracy theorists like to espouse, if you get your flu shot, you will be less likely come down with the flu. It's not always perfect. But there's no harm in hedging your bets.
DHEC keeps lots of good information about flu season on its website. The agency also passed along a few tips about vaccinating your family, particularly young children:
- Anyone 6 months of age and older "without contraindications" should get the flu vaccine every year.
- Pregnant women should be vaccinated in order to pass antibodies to newborns who are due during flu season. Infants younger than 6 months can't be vaccinated.
- Some kids between the ages of 6 months and 8 years will need to be vaccinated against the flu with two doses for "optimal protection." Those doses need to be spread at least four weeks apart and should both be administered by the end of October.
- If you child needs two doses, the first step should be administered as soon as the vaccine becomes available.
- Children who received two doses during a prior flu season will only require one dose this year.
- Children under 12 years old need to receive their flu shot at a pediatrician's office or through their primary care provider.
- Children older than 12 years, as well as all adults, can receive a flu shot at at participating pharmacies without a prescription.