People living with psoriatic disease can sometimes be on medications that can potentially suppress their immune system. And people who have suppressed immune systems should receive an influenza vaccine every year, according to the 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,” said Abby Van Voorhees, M.D., who is the Chair of Dermatology at the Eastern Virginia Medical School and the Chair of the Medical Board of the National Psoriasis Foundation.
“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 said.
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 said.
Flu season in the U.S. starts as early as October and can last as late as May. During this time, flu viruses are circulating at higher levels, according to the CDC, and that’s when people should be vaccinated.
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 said. “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 said. “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 said.
“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 said.
“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.”
Click here for more recommendations on staying healthy during flu season.