With the 2019-2020 flu season beginning this month, local health care providers are giving the public a heads up on how to keep the flu virus at bay.

Dr. Bhagyashree Shastri, an infectious diseases and internal medicine doctor, got her flu shot at the hospital early Wednesday morning. The hospital was offering a flu vaccine clinic in an effort to give their staff some protection before the virus begins to worsen in severity, which usually happens in November, according to the CDC. 

"(The) CDC recommends annual flu shots, as a person’s immune protection from the vaccination declines over time," Shastri said. "Every flu season is different – the seasonal flu vaccine protects against the influenza viruses that research indicates will be most common during the upcoming season. Getting a flu shot by the end of October is generally recommended."

Shastri, who is employed by Internal Medicine Associates of Aiken, said the flu vaccine is the "most important step" in reducing the risk of catching the virus.

This year there are vaccines available to those with egg allergies, who were previously cautioned against flu shots. 

"Flucelvax Quadrivalent (and) Flublok are licensed for those with egg allergies," Shastri said. "Those who develop angioedema, respiratory distress or require epinephrine with egg ingestion should receive the vaccine under the supervision of a health care provider. Talk to your doctor if you have an egg allergy."

Fluzone HD is another flu vaccine that is licensed specifically for adults 65 and older. This vaccine contains four times the amount of antigen (the part of the vaccine that helps build immunity to the virus) of a standard flu vaccine.

Certain groups of people, such as those with HIV, children under 2, the elderly or those with heart disease are at elevated risk of catching the flu and developing severe complications from the virus, which may result in the development of serious illness and death.

Last year's flu season (2018-2019) was lengthy, but not as bad as the severe 2017-2018 flu season, which resulted in the deaths of 289 people in South Carolina due to flu-related complications. The vast majority of those deaths were people over the age of 65 and occurred in the Midlands region.

That is why the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, the CDC and Aiken Regional Medical Centers advise the public to receive the appropriate flu vaccine by the end of October. 

"The flu vaccine cannot cause flu," Shastri said. "Flu vaccines ... are made by inactivated (killed) virus or by using a single gene from a flu virus. None of these are infectious. Some people report having mild reactions to flu vaccination like soreness, redness, swelling where the shot was given or low-grade fever. Headache and muscle aches also may occur."

Shastri said these reactions, which are the result of the body building an immune response to the virus, generally last a day or two when they occur.

Staff at the hospital are required to wear surgical masks after the end of October if they choose not to receive the vaccine. The masks help prevent the virus from spreading when a person sneezes, coughs or talks, which can infect a person up to six feet away.

"Most healthy adults may be able to infect others beginning one day before symptoms develop and up to five to seven days after becoming sick," Shastri said. "That means that you may be able to catch the flu from someone else before they know they are sick. Children and some people with weakened immune systems may pass the virus for longer than seven days and earlier than one day prior to clinical illness."

Some people get the flu shot and become infected with the virus anyway. Shastri said this usually occurs in people who were exposed to the virus before the vaccine could take effect or is the result of other cold viruses that can mimic symptoms of the flu.

"While the flu shot may be effective, 30 to 70% of those people receiving the flu shot will have a less severe case of influenza and are mostly protected from the more serious complications of influenza," Shastri said.

Flu shots are available at pharmacies across Aiken County and the local DHEC office at 222 Beaufort Street NE.

Kristina Rackley is a general assignment reporter with the Aiken Standard.