10 Flu Vaccine Myths That Can Make You Sick
Has another year gone by already? It’s that time of the year again—flu shot time. If you’re anything like me, another shot is about as exciting as a root canal. But before you avoid getting vaccinated, read some of the comments that I heard this week from my patients:
1. I still have time—flu season hasn't started yet.
The timing of flu season is unpredictable. While it tends to peak from December to February, it’s hard to say when the virus will start making its rounds. Not only that, but it takes about two weeks for the vaccine to kick in. If you wait ... and wait ... you could end up getting it too late in the season to help. (And what’s worse than getting a shot and sick because you procrastinated?)
2. I’m protected because I received the flu vaccine last year.
Not true for two reasons: (a) the body's immunity decreases over time (especially in older people), even within the year of the shot and (b) the virus strains can change every year, so last year’s vaccine may not be effective against this year’s virus strains.
3. I can't get a flu shot because I have a cold.
As long as you don't have a fever above 101 or any other significant illness, it's okay to get the flu shot before your cold clears up.
4. Flu vaccinations are only for older people.
Not true! The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the flu vaccine for anyone 6 months and older. The only people that the CDC says should not receive the flu shot are listed below (and yes, pretty rare cases, so you’re running out of excuses!):
- People who have had a severe reaction to the influenza vaccine
- People with a history of Guillain-Barre Syndrome after receiving the flu vaccine
- People who are moderately or severely ill -- they should wait until they’re better before being vaccinated
5. I'll probably catch the flu anyway.
You may also still be injured in a car crash even if you wear a seat belt. Does that mean we should ditch seat belts? The flu vaccine cuts your risk of getting the flu by 50-70% (not to mention, even if you do get the flu, it reduces your flu symptoms substantially).
Every year, scientists attempt to predict which strains of the flu virus will be most prevalent that fall. It’s a tough estimate, as the flu can mutate quickly over months, and sometimes even within a single season. But if you do end up catching the flu, you'll have a much milder case of it.
6. The flu shot will make me sick.
Flu shots are made with inactivated flu virus, which cannot give you the actual flu. The most common reaction is soreness or redness at the site of the actual infection. A very small percentage of people will get a low-grade fever and aches as their body builds up an immune response, but this will only last one to two days.
The nasal spray is a very weakened virus, so it’s also unlikely that you will develop flu-like symptoms from it. And actually, the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics don’t recommend it for the 2016-2017 flu season, because it hasn’t been effective in recent years. Some people report a mildly stuffy nose or cold symptoms after getting the nasal spray.
How can I manage flu symptoms?
7. I'll just take antibiotics if I get the flu.
Antibiotics work well against bacterial infections, but they don't treat a viral infection like the flu. If someone develops a serious complication of the flu, such as pneumonia, then they need antibiotics. But antibiotics won't help your flu at all and may actually cause unwanted side effects.
8. I'm pregnant so I shouldn’t get the shot.
Not true! The flu vaccine protects you and your baby. The flu is, in fact, more likely to cause severe illness and complications if you’re expecting. It can also cause premature labor and other health issues for your baby. And here’s good news: the flu shot you get now will protect your baby after his or her birth. Just make sure to get the standard flu injection, not the nasal spray.
9. The flu isn’t a big deal.
If you’re thinking this, then you’ve probably never had the flu. Come visit my ER in January and February—you’ll see people of all ages, dehydrated and feeling miserable. Even worse, certain groups of people are even more vulnerable and can develop deadly complications from the flu—specifically:
- Children under 2
- Adults over 65
- Women who are pregnant
- People with asthma, COPD, heart disease, kidney or liver disease, diabetes, and all other chronic medical conditions
- People who are morbidly obese
Thousands of people die every year in the U.S. from the flu—as many as 49,000, with over 200,000 hospitalized. Get your flu shot!
10. I have to make a doctor's appointment to get a flu shot and I don't have time.
There are many convenient options now. One year I got mine at the grocery store—pop in for milk, pop out immunized. I've also gotten my flu shot from my child's pediatrician when I took her to get her flu shot. Options besides your doctor's office include:
- Local health clinics, all of which have walk-in flu clinics
- Your workplace, which may offer flu shots
Also: Check out the CDC Healthmap Vaccine Finder. Plug in your zip code to find a location near you. Most people will find that their insurance pays for at least part of the vaccine.
I hate shots.
If you truly hate shots that's not a myth, it's a fact. The good news is that the vaccine comes in a couple of forms for the needle-phobic:
- Nasal spray vaccine: for healthy, non-pregnant people ages 2-49
- Intradermal flu shot: recommended only for healthy people ages 18-64 (this shot is injected into the skin, not the muscle, and uses a smaller needle)
What types of vaccines are available?
Vaccines for children:
- There are several options—one covers three different flu viruses (two Influenza A and one Influenza B), the other covers four (an additional Influenza B). Both have forms available for children 6 months and older, while the one that covers four viruses is also available in the nasal spray for children 2 years and older.
Vaccines for adults:
For healthy, non-pregnant adults up to age 49:
- Standard dose inactivated vaccines
- Standard dose live-attenuated vaccine (nasal spray)
- Healthy people between 18-64 can receive the intradermal (shorter needle) vaccine
For all individuals over 50 or with a contraindication to the live vaccine:
- Standard dose (or high dose if over 65 and preferred) inactivated vaccine
- Healthy people between 18-64 can receive the inactivated intradermal vaccine
Adults > 65:
- May choose the high-dose flu vaccine or the regular dose.
- Stick to the inactivated (non-nasal spray) vaccine
- Do not receive the live-attenuated vaccine (intranasal spray)
Speak with your doctor regarding which vaccine is best for you. Here’s to a healthy winter!