Editor's note: The 2017-2018 flu season is upon us. This story, originally published at the start of last year's flu season, has been updated to reflect information for the current season.
People living with psoriatic disease can sometimes be on medications that can potentially suppress their immune system. And people who have weakened immune systems should receive an influenza vaccine every year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
That’s because the influenza virus can lead to hospitalization and even death. No one is truly immune to the flu, not even healthy people. They can still get sick from it and spread it to others; so the more people who are vaccinated, the less it can spread.
“We recommend people with psoriatic disease get a flu shot because we don’t really know how immune suppressed our patients are,” says Abby Van Voorhees, M.D., who is the chair of dermatology at the Eastern Virginia Medical School and the chair of NPF's Medical Board.
“One patient can take medication and their immune system can be impacted in a negligible way; another could have a more profound effect,” Van Voorhees says.
In other words, it varies from person to person. “Since we don’t test people to see how immune suppressed they actually are when they are on these various types of medication, our recommendation is that anyone on these medications with a potential for immune suppression should have flu shot every fall,” Van Voorhees says.
Flu season in the U.S. starts as early as October and can last as late as May, typically peaking between December and February, according to the CDC. During flu season, viruses are circulating at higher levels, and that’s when people should be vaccinated. It takes the human body two weeks to build antibodies that protect against the flu. But it's not too late to get a flu shot, even if peak season has passed. The flu is unpredictable and varies from season to season, and region to region. (To view flu-like illness activity in your state, check out this week-by-week map.)
A common misconception
Some people with suppressed immune systems are too frightened to get a flu shot because they’re worried they’ll run the risk of catching the flu instead of developing an immune response to it.
That’s not the case at all, but there’s a reason why there’s a misconception floating around, and it has to do with how the flu vaccination is administered.
There are two ways to be immunized against the flu. It can be administered as a shot or taken as a nasal spray.
“The kind we recommend is the kind that comes as a shot as opposed to the nasal inhaled vaccine,” Van Voorhees says. “The nasally inhaled version is a live vaccine, and if you take the live vaccine version, then you could get the flu if your immune system was suppressed.”
However, that is not the case with a flu shot.
“Scientists put together the chemicals of the component parts of the flu virus, and then that’s mixed together and administered as a shot. This tricks our body into thinking we’ve been exposed to flu, which triggers an immune response. We then become immune to the real virus,” Van Voorhees explained.
“Patients come to me worried they may develop the flu from a flu shot,” she says. “But since it’s not really a virus we’re administrating but rather component parts, you can see why that is not possible. I can be reassuring to someone who is concerned that they would not get sick from taking a flu shot.”
Sometimes taking a flu shot can make a person feel draggy and achy afterward. That’s not necessarily a sign of infection; it’s your body triggering that immune response to the vaccination, Van Voorhees says.
“Making sure that you are well rested and in good health before you take a vaccine is certainly a good idea,” she noted. “If nothing else, it makes any side effects from the vaccination itself be much better tolerated.”
Stay healthy during flu season
Just because you received a flu shot doesn’t mean you’re totally in the clear. Patients with suppressed immune systems should always be proactive about their health, especially during the height of flu season.
“The best recommendations I could make for keeping healthy during flu season are to get plenty of rest, to eat a healthy diet and to do the kinds of things that keep stress at bay, including exercising on a regular basis,” Van Voorhees says.
“Those kinds of generally good health habits will minimize your risk of developing the flu. And I think it goes without saying that if you know somebody who has the flu, obviously you should avoid close contact with them until they get better.”
Driving discovery, creating community
For more than 50 years, we’ve been driving efforts to cure psoriatic disease and improve the lives of those affected. But there’s still plenty to do! Learn how you can help our advocacy team shape the laws and policies that affect people with psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis – in your state and across the country. Help us raise funds to support research by joining Team NPF, where you can walk, run, cycle, play bingo or create your own fundraising event. If you or someone you love needs free, personalized support for living a healthier life with psoriatic disease, contact our Patient Navigation Center. And keep the National Psoriasis Foundation going strong by making a donation today. Together, we will find a cure.