9 Flu Vaccine Myths That Can Make You Sick

One ER doctor talks about the common misconceptions most everyone needs to be aware of.

cold and flu, vaccines, vaccination

Medically reviewed in February 2021

It’s baaaack. And by “it,” I mean flu season. There are many myths and misconceptions about the flu vaccine. Read on for comments I’ve heard from my own patients in the ER—and what to really believe when it comes to the flu vaccine. FYI: The middle of September to the middle of October is the perfect time to get your vaccine. It gives your body the two weeks it needs to form antibodies before cases of the flu typically start to rise in late October.

1. 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. 

2. 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.

3. 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 vaccine are listed below (and yes, are 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

4. I'll probably catch the flu anyway.
The flu vaccine cuts your risk of getting the flu by 40 to 60 percent (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. There’s also a new version of the flu vaccine this year (called “cell-based”), which was not made in eggs and may be more effective than the traditional flu shots. 

5. The flu shot will make me sick.  
The flu vaccine 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, and is not a reason to avoid the flu shot.

6. I'll just take anti-viral medication if I get the flu.
There are prescription anti-viral medications that one can take if they’re diagnosed with the flu, but you don’t want to rely on them. That’s because they don’t “cure” the flu. At best, they’ll make you feel better only about 16 to 24 hours earlier than you would have without the medications. Plus, they have to be started within 48 hours of getting sick, which can be tough catch in time.

7. 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.

8. 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. Get your flu shot!

9. 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, come 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:

  • Pharmacies
  • 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.

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