Get the Facts to Protect Yourself and Others
Published September 2021
Seasonal influenza, commonly known as the flu, is more than just a reason to stay home from work or school. Influenza can lead to severe complications, such as pneumonia, 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 and those around you? Get the flu vaccine.
"Each year as the flu season approaches, I field the same questions," says Northwestern Medicine Internal Medicine Physician Candice R. Robb Rarey, DO. Patients want to know:
- Will the flu vaccine make me sick?
- Why do I have to get a flu vaccine every year?
- Why do I need a flu vaccine if I rarely get sick?
"I advocate for everyone to get the flu shot. It's the No. 1 way to protect yourself and others from influenza," Dr. Robb Rarey says.
One study found that on average, more than 200,000 people in the U.S. are hospitalized for flu-related respiratory and heart conditions each year. To help change these statistics, it is important to separate fact from fiction.
Myth No. 1: The flu shot will make me sick.
"The flu vaccine is made from an inactivated virus that cannot 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 get the flu after getting the shot, but you would never get the flu because of the shot."
Also, the annual flu shot is created to protect you from the strains of influenza you are most likely to encounter in a given year. It does not protect you from every possible strain. So, you always have a chance to contract a strain of influenza that is not targeted by this year's flu vaccine.
The flu vaccine can cause side effects such as low-grade fever and muscle aches in some people, but those effects are rare. The most common side effects are redness, tenderness and swelling at the site of the injection.
Allergic reactions to the flu vaccine are also rare, but if you have severe allergies, consult your physician.
Myth No. 2: I'm healthy, so I do not need a flu shot.
Just because you have not gotten sick so far does not mean you should skip the flu vaccine. Even if you believe you are at low risk of being seriously ill with the flu, it can be deadly to your loved ones and others in the community. By protecting yourself from the influenza virus, you are less likely to get other people sick. In this way, your vaccination helps protect everyone in your life.
"Everyone over the age of 6 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 is not 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., between 12,000 and 61,000 people died from the flu each year from 2010 to 2020.
During a global COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever to protect yourself and your loved ones from other threats to the immune system by getting the flu vaccine. Vaccination against flu and COVID-19 can help you avoid getting seriously ill, being hospitalized or dying from either virus.
Myth No. 4: I do not 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 flu vaccine is continually updated to keep up with these changes."
The CDC studies the effectiveness of the flu vaccine each year and has found that it reduces the risk of flu illness between 40% and 60% in the general population during flu season (fall to early spring) when the vaccines target the most common strains that year.
Myth No. 5: Getting a flu shot is not safe during the pandemic.
Routine medical care continues to be important during the pandemic. Northwestern Medicine facilities have extensive safety measures in place to help protect you from COVID-19 during your visits.
You can also get your COVID-19 vaccine and your flu vaccine at the same time. The CDC has now determined this is safe to do.
"This is one way to protect yourself and others during this time," says Dr. Robb Rarey.
Myth No. 6: It is 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."
But getting vaccinated later still helps. Vaccines are offered as long as flu viruses are circulating, typically through the end of January.
Fact: You can help protect yourself, your loved ones and your community.
Getting the flu vaccine is the best way to help keep yourself and others safe from the flu. Other important steps you can take:
- Wash your hands often.
- Avoid touching your face, mouth and eyes.
- Stay away from others who are sick.
- Stay home if you are not feeling well.