Flu Shot Truth
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 vital organs, like 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, and 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 infection with 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 the shot, but never 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, but it does not protect you from every strain. So, there’s always a chance that you will contract a strain of the influenza virus that isn’t covered in the annual flu shot.
The flu shot can cause certain 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.
There is also a nasal spray influenza vaccination that contains live viruses. These viruses are weakened so that they will not cause influenza.
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 don’t need the flu shot.
“Everyone over the age of 6 months, healthy or not, should protect themselves by getting a flu vaccination,” 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.
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 vaccination 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 measures the effectiveness of the annual flu vaccination and have found that it reduces the risk of flu illness by anywhere from 40% to 60% in the general population during flu season (fall to early spring).
Myth No. 5: 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, this means 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. Because the timing of the flu is unpredictable and varies in different parts of the country, besides getting your immunization, you can take daily preventive actions to decrease your chances of getting the flu: 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.