Learn About the Flu from a Lupus Perspective

Fight the Flu Q&A

Flu season is a given every year. The question is whether to get a vaccination. Lupus specialists we consult with say yes for people with lupus and other inflammatory illnesses or who take medicines that lower the ability of the immune system to fight off infection.

Ask Your Doctor About Getting the Seasonal Flu Vaccine!

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for preventing the flu include everyday actions like washing your hands frequently and avoiding contact with those who have been infected. But vaccination is advised when approved by your doctor as the best protection against getting the flu. Quantities of the vaccine are limited –to find out where the vaccine is offered in your area, visit nyc.gov for locations in New York or flu.gov for locations throughout the country.

Flu vaccines cause antibodies to develop in the body to protect against infection with the viruses that are in the vaccine. Antibodies develop in the body about two weeks after vaccination.

The seasonal flu vaccine protects against three influenza viruses expected to be most common during the upcoming season. Three kinds of influenza viruses commonly circulate among people today: influenza B viruses, influenza A (H1N1) viruses, and influenza A (H3N2) viruses. Each year, one flu virus of each kind is used to produce seasonal influenza vaccine.

There are two types of vaccines:

  • The “flu shot” is a vaccine made with killed virus, called an inactivated vaccine given with a needle, usually in the arm.
  • The nasal-spray flu vaccine is made with live, weakened flu viruses given as a nasal spray. It is referred to as the Live Attenuated Influenza Vaccine. The viruses in the nasal spray vaccine do not cause the flu.

Common Questions About the Flu

Richard Furie, MD answers some of the most common questions about lupus and the flu. Dr. Furie is chief of the Division of Rheumatology and Allergy-Clinical Immunology at the North Shore–LIJ Health System in New York.

Q. I have lupus. Should I get the seasonal flu shot?

A. If you have lupus, you should strongly consider getting the seasonal flu vaccination—as long as it is not in the form of a “live attenuated nasal vaccine.”
The flu shot is administered by a relatively painless injection into the arm muscle. (Note that since the vaccine is made in chicken eggs, you shouldn't get it if you are by chance allergic to eggs.) In rare cases, a person develops a localized injection site reaction (redness, pain, and/or swelling) as well as fever or muscle aches for a day or two. These types of reactions are not the result of contracting the flu; it is biologically impossible to develop the flu from the injected vaccine.

It’s also a good time to ask your doctor about getting the pneumonia (pneumococcal) vaccine to protect against this dangerous type of bacterial infection.

Q. What else should I do if I have lupus to protect myself from getting the flu?

A. Experts believe that flu viruses are spread primarily from person to person through coughing and sneezing. Sometimes a person can get infected by touching a surface or object that has the droplets of the virus on it, and then touching their nose or mouth. So follow the basics of prevention—wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water (or an alcohol-based hand rub) before touching these areas of your body (or eating), and keep your distance from people who may be infected!

Q. What should I do if I think I have the flu?

A. Since antiviral medicines should be taken within 48 hours in people who are at high risk for complications—which includes people with lupus, or who are taking medicines that suppress the immune system—call your doctor right away if you start to feel sick with some or all of the following flu symptoms: fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, fatigue, chills, diarrhea and vomiting. Then wait for 24 hours to pass after your fever has stopped (on its own, without medicines) before going to work or school, or traveling.

Visit the CDC website for more information on preventing and managing the flu.