Northwestern Medicine

The Truth about the Flu Vaccine and How to Protect Yourself and Others this Season

Northwestern Memorial Hospital November 06, 2014

Northwestern Medicine tackles common flu and flu shot myths

CHICAGO, IL  There are many misunderstandings that prevent people from getting a flu shot and staying healthy each year. Many Americans consider influenza, commonly known as the flu, to be a more of a nuisance than a serious illness, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that more than 200,000* people are hospitalized due to the flu each year. Some individuals are more susceptible to developing serious flu-related complications than others, including children under the age of five, adults age 65 or older, women who are pregnant and those with medical conditions such as heart, lung or kidney disease. For these groups, catching the flu can cause life-threatening complications. 

“People who are reluctant to get the flu shot often believe that it isn’t worthwhile or that the shot may give them the flu instead of protecting them from it, neither of which is correct. We know that between five to 20 percent of the population contracts the flu each season, and the majority of them have not been vaccinated,” said Gary A. Noskin, MD, senior vice president and chief medical officer for Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “Early vaccination is the most important way to keep yourself from getting sick with influenza.”

For the first time, the CDC is recommending that healthy children between the ages of two through eight years old now receive the nasal spray flu vaccine, which has been found to prevent about 50 percent more cases of the flu than the shot in younger children. Children are a high-risk group for serious flu complication and it is important for children between the ages of six months to eight years old to receive vaccination.

The flu vaccination is the best line of defense against influenza, but misconceptions may prevent individuals from receiving the vaccination. Dr. Noskin helps clear up some of the most common flu-related myths:

  • Getting the flu shot can give you the flu. Getting a flu shot cannot cause the flu. It is possible for someone to get the flu shot and then get sick if he or she was already infected with the virus, or that some mild flu-like symptoms may occur afterward, but these symptoms are rare. “Every flu shot contains a form of the virus that is inactive and no longer infectious. Getting vaccinated cannot give someone the flu,” said Noskin.
  • It is not important to be vaccinated against the flu if you are healthy. Being healthy can help prevent someone from getting the flu, but no one is immune, which is why getting the flu shot is so important. Young children, the elderly and pregnant women are at a higher risk for serious flu complications than the general public under any circumstance, so it is especially important for these individuals to get vaccinated, even if they are healthy. “People living with chronic diseases, such as diabetes, asthma or cardiovascular disease, are also more likely to be severely impacted by the flu. Individuals with these conditions should always make sure they are vaccinated,” said Noskin.
  • I am really only at risk for catching the flu when it is coldest in the middle of winter. If I make sure to always wash my hands and stay healthy then, I will be fine during the rest of the flu season. While the height of the flu season can often be during the coldest time of the year, it can also take place in the fall, early spring or even last through multiple seasons. The flu is not dependent on cold temperatures. The CDC states that the peak of flu season has occurred anywhere from late November through March, so while it isn’t too late to get a flu shot in January, it is always best to get it earlier in the season for the best protection.
  • If I choose not to get the flu shot, the only person my choice impacts is me. Getting a flu shot is not only important for your health, but the health of those around you. “Passing on the flu to loved ones, co-workers or anyone you happen to stand next to is very easy. Just one cough or sneeze sends thousands of tiny, infectious droplets into the air, which can infect anyone who is at risk for serious complications from the flu,” said Noskin. “Interestingly, you can start spreading the flu up to 24 hours before developing any symptoms and find out you have been infected.”

While the flu is not life threatening for most Americans, everyone should take precautions to ensure their health and the health of those around them. Getting your seasonal flu vaccination is the best way to prevent the flu, but it is also best to take further precautions upon entering flu season.

“It is important to practice healthy habits such as regularly washing your hands with soap and water. Daily routines cause us to come in contact with surfaces that are frequently used by others, such as keyboards, phones and doorknobs. When soap and water isn’t easily available, using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer offers a simple solution that is just as effective for preventing the spread of the flu,” said Noskin.

Flu vaccinations are now available for adults and children at most Northwestern Medicine outpatient locations without an appointment. Learn more information about the flu, flu shot locations and walk-in flu vaccine schedules.

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