Fact or Fiction? The Truth About the Flu Shot
Seasonal influenza, commonly known as the flu, is more than just a reason to stay home from work or school. It can lead to severe complications — such as pneumonia and inflammation of the heart and brain — and even death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly 8% of the U.S. population gets the flu each year.
How can you protect yourself? Get a flu shot.
“Each year, as the flu season approaches, I field the same questions: ‘Will the flu shot make me sick?’, ‘I never get sick, so why do I need the flu shot?’ and ‘Why do I need to get the flu shot every year?’” says Northwestern Medicine Internal Medicine Physician Candice R. Robb Rarey, DO. “I advocate for everyone to get the flu shot. It’s the number one way to protect yourself and others from influenza.”
On average each year, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized for flu-related complications. Misconceptions about the flu shot are partly to blame. So how can we change these statistics? Let’s start by debunking common flu shot myths.
Myth No. 1: The flu shot will make me sick.
“The flu vaccine is made from an inactivated virus that can’t cause influenza,” says Dr. Robb Rarey. “This helps your body build the antibodies it needs to fight the first sign of the influenza virus. It takes roughly one to two weeks for this to occur, so there is a chance you could contract the flu after getting the shot, but you would never get the flu because of the shot.”
Also, the annual flu shot is formulated to protect you from the strains of influenza you’re most likely to encounter in a given year, but it does not protect you from every strain. So, there’s always a chance you will contract a strain of the influenza that isn’t covered in the annual flu shot.
The flu shot can cause side effects such as low-grade fever and muscle aches in some people. This is rare. The most common side effects are redness, tenderness and swelling at the site of the shot.
Allergic reactions to the flu shot are also rare, but if you have severe allergies, consult your physician.
Myth No. 2: I’m healthy, so I don’t need a flu shot.
Just because you’ve been lucky in the flu roulette doesn’t mean you can skip the flu shot.
“Everyone over the age of six months, healthy or not, should protect themselves by getting a flu vaccine,” says Dr. Robb Rarey. “Even ― and especially ― pregnant women.”
Myth No. 3: The flu isn’t dangerous.
“The flu can be very serious, particularly among young children, older adults and people with certain chronic health conditions, such as asthma, heart disease or diabetes,” says Dr. Robb Rarey. In the U.S., roughly 36,000 people die from the flu each year.
Coupled with the effects of a global pandemic, it’s more important than ever to protect yourself and your loved ones by getting the flu vaccine.
Myth No. 4: I don’t need a flu shot every year.
Yes, you do.
“First of all, your body’s immune response from the flu vaccine declines over time, so you need the flu shot annually to give yourself the best protection,” says Dr. Robb Rarey. “Second, the flu virus characteristics are constantly changing, so the formulation for the flu vaccine is continuously updated to keep up with these changes.”
The CDC conducts studies on the effectiveness of the flu vaccination each year and has found that it reduces the risk of flu illness between 40% to 60% in the general population during flu season (fall to early spring).
Myth No. 5: Getting a flu shot isn’t safe during the pandemic.
Influenza and COVID-19 are both contagious respiratory illnesses, but they are caused by different viruses. Therefore, it is more important than ever to get your flu shot. “This is one way to protect yourself and others during this time,” says Dr. Robb Rarey.
The CDC recommends people get the flu shot earlier this season and take proper precautions, such as physical distancing and wearing a mask, when doing so. To that effect, Northwestern Medicine facilities have extensive measures in place to help avoid the spread of infection.
Myth No. 6: It’s too late to get my flu shot.
“It’s best to get vaccinated before the flu starts spreading,” says Dr. Robb Rarey. “For most people, this means getting the vaccine by the end of October.”
Getting vaccinated after this time, toward the end of flu season when flu shots are still offered (typically the end of January), is still beneficial.
Fact: The flu shot can help you and protect others.
Northwestern Medicine follows the standard CDC guidelines for immunizations. We also keep up to date on the newest vaccine products and recommendations. The timing and duration of the flu season is unpredictable and varies in different parts of the country, so to decrease your chances of getting the flu (besides getting your vaccine), stay away from people who are ill and wash your hands to reduce the spread of germs.
If you are sick with the flu, stay home to help prevent spreading it to others.