From Dr. Favor–Top 5 Reasons Why People Do Not Take the Flu Shot

nurse in mask giving woman an immunizationI’ve never gotten the flu, so I’d rather just take my chances.

True, individuals are not equally susceptible to getting sick from the flu. Science has informed us that genetics plays a role in how a person’s immune system responds to viral illnesses. The immune cells your body has on hand when you are exposed also influence your susceptibility. And some people who become infected have only mild flu symptoms or even no symptoms at all. It is still possible to pass the virus to your coworkers or loved ones.

You may have avoided the flu so far, but your immune system also changes. Aging, some medications, and health conditions can weaken your ability to fight infection. Immunity comes from a complex system of interacting parts. We do not yet have the ability to measure an individual’s susceptibility to a specific virus. We look forward to the day when a simple blood test might enable us to predict your susceptibility to the flu, but we are not there yet. Maybe you’ve just been lucky, but how many years can you take your chances before your luck runs out?

I took a flu shot a few years ago, and it gave me the flu.

This did not happen! Flu vaccines do not contain any live virus. Flu-like symptoms you may experience shortly after getting vaccinated were not caused by your shot.

  • You may have been sick because you contacted the virus before your flu shot had time to stimulate your body’s immunity. Developing immunity takes a couple of weeks.
  • People with a weakened immune system, due to illness or medication, may not be capable of developing the protection that the flu shot is meant to provide.
  • The flu vaccine is created each year to protect against the flu viruses most likely to be circulating in a given season. The vaccine does not protect against every possible influenza virus. But it greatly improves your chances of escaping the bad ones.
  • Your symptoms may have been caused by a different virus altogether. The fact that you were sick after a flu shot may be pure coincidence.
  • The flu vaccine can cause some mild side effects—soreness around the injection site, mild achiness, even headache or low-grade fever. These are not the flu.

I am afraid that the flu shot is not safe.

This is understandable after controversy over vaccine safety rocked news headlines for so many months. Putting that discussion aside, we would emphasize that flu vaccine is not new technology. It is not an mRNA vaccine (the type developed for COVID-19 vaccination). The seasonal flu vaccine was first given to soldiers during WWII. In 1945 it was offered to the general public. Dr. Jonas Salk, who developed the first polio vaccine, and his team also developed the first influenza vaccine. Since then, hundreds of millions of Americans have received it safely. The rest of the story is that countless lives have been saved. Despite this success, many Americans are still mistrustful of its safety record.

The medical community has worked to identify factors that influence vaccine acceptance. We know that your perception of your personal risk will sway your decision. If you are a young person, if your community is reporting a mild flu season, or if you’ve never personally had a serious flu, you are likely to feel that your risk is low. But if you ask someone who has had a past experience with serious flu, even if the person was not hospitalized, you will hear firm determination not to have that experience again. Those who have suffered with days of high fever, pounding headache, bone-deep aching, burning chest, painful, unrelenting cough, throat so raw that swallowing water hurts will tell you it was not just a bad cold.

Past experience often influences vaccine acceptance.

I have heard that the flu shot is not very effective.

The vaccine is not 100% effective. It is developed each the summer based on research about which specific influenza viruses are likely to be the most common during the coming fall. Effectiveness averages between about 40 and 60%. That is how much less likely you are to develop seasonal flu if you are vaccinated. Getting the flu despite having had the flu shot should not make you cynical about vaccinations. Consider instead whether—without the shot—you would have been hospitalized with a severe flu-related pneumonia requiring mechanical ventilation, permanent lung damage, or worse.

What will your decision be for the 2023-24 flu season? If you’re still undecided, read again about the symptoms of serious flu: days of high fever, pounding headache, bone-deep aching, burning chest, painful, unrelenting cough, throat so raw that swallowing water hurts…

There are just too many shots these days. I don’t feel comfortable with it.

Immunizations are truly one of the miracles of modern medicine. Smallpox—a deadly infectious disease—wiped out entire civilizations of indigenous people during the colonization of the western hemisphere. Even in the 20th century, it killed more people than World War I and II combined. The first modern vaccination against smallpox in the 18th century was met with fear and opposition. Since the vaccine used material from people infected with cowpox (a milder illness) to produce immunity, early critics said the vaccination could turn people into cows. Today smallpox has been eradicated worldwide.

In the 20th century, polio epidemics spread through communities, resulting in death or leaving its victims permanently paralyzed. Parents were terrified. A survey in 1952 reported that parents feared only nuclear holocaust more than polio. The discovery of vaccines (in the 1950s to 1960s) has nearly eradicated polio worldwide.

Our understanding of infectious diseases advanced rapidly from that early history. Our arsenal of immunizations now protects against dozens of diseases. And our safety record is impressive. But recent events seem to have created some “vaccination fatigue” in our communities. Is it too much? Before you answer too quickly, ask an elderly family member about the fear of contagious diseases a few decades ago.

Do you really want to take your chances with flu? There is benefit and it comes at such a small cost. You have probably been somewhere already today that offered flu shots—free! Best wishes for a healthy holiday season.