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The last time I got a flu shot was five years ago. In the eyes of my father, a fervent believer in flu shots and a doctor, I was crazy to skip them--and definitely lucky since I never got the flu.

But this year I finally decided to get the shot. With reports of elevated flu activity and cities like Boston declaring a public health emergency, even I wasn't willing to risk it.

With thousands of flu cases, you may be wondering why this year has been hit hard and if it's worth it to get the shot.  I had the opportunity to ask Stacia Woodcock, a pharmacist at Walgreens in New York City, my most pressing flu questions.

Why is this flu season so bad? 
The reason that there have been more flu patients this year is due to a stronger and more virulent strain of the flu, says Woodcock. This strain is stronger due to a mutation in the virus.

This year's vaccine is said to be 60% effective. What does that mean? 
Sixty percent means that the vaccine reduces your risk of having to go to they doctor by 60% if you do indeed get the flu. That may not seem like a lot, but that's pretty much expected if the flu shot is a moderately good match when it comes to the viruses circulating in the community. "People believe the vaccine will protect them 100% from the flu. The vaccine helps to decrease the severity of your symptoms," she says.

So yes, you CAN still get the flu even if you get the shot. The good news is that you probably won't be as achy and sick as you would have been if you hadn't been vaccinated. So don't assume that if you get the flu--and still get sick--that your flu shot was a failure.

How is the vaccine made? 
Each year the experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention take a look at the strains of flu circulating around the world and formulate a vaccine based on their predictions of what strains will be strongest during the North American flu season, Woodcock says.

Of course, this means there is a bit of guesswork as the strains can mutate as they travel around the globe. This happened in the 2009-2010 flu season with the H1N1 virus (swine flu), which wasn't initially included in that season's flu shot.

How long before the vaccine kicks in? 
Your body begins producing antibodies right away, but it takes about two weeks before it takes full effect.

If I already had the flu, should I still get vaccinated? 
Get on it! Woodcock says that each year there are two to three strains that circulate so even if you had the flu, you can still catch another strain.

What makes the flu different from a cold?
If you catch an influenza virus, you'll have more than just the coughing and sneezing you get with a regular cold. Expect severe fatigue, high fever, nausea, and dizziness, along with traditional cold symptoms such as a runny nose and sore throat. Woodcock recommends getting plenty of rest, drinking extra fluids, and managing your symptoms with over-the-counter meds. If you're in a high-risk group (if you're older or you have a weakened immune system, for example), your doc may prescribe Tamiflu, a drug that's meant to slow the spread of flu in your body.

Although this year's flu season has hit hard, getting the flu shot can protect you. Add in frequent hand washing and these immune-boosting recipes to your flu defense and you'll be ready to knock the flu out of your path.

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