Seasonal Influenza (flu) kills three to six thousand Americans on average every year! (over 48,000 in 2003—04). And these deaths are largely preventable. They are the result of seasonal influenza, “the flu.”
We can prevent most of these deaths along with thousands more hospitalizations, time lost from work and family, and general misery. But, year after year, around half of all Americans decline or simply forget about getting a flu shot. This year I hope we can convince all of you to be vaccinated! I want to share with you the most common myths about the flu shot that I hear in my practice each day—and then counter them with real facts.
MYTH 1: It is possible to get the flu from the vaccine. Fact: The flu shot does not contain any flu virus. It simply cannot give you the flu. It contains viral particles that will cause your body to make substances to fight off the active flu virus. (Note that the nasal FluMist which contain a live, but disabled virus that cannot cause full-blown flu, is not being used in 2016 because performed poorly against H1N1 flu. This type of flu shot is not safe for pregnant women). When you hear someone say they got the flu after receiving the shot, realize that the flu isn’t the only seasonal illness people get. The flu shot protects against the three or four viruses each year that health experts believe will be most dangerous. You can still get other viruses including colds, stomach illnesses, and even other flu-type viruses. Most of these will be much less dangerous. And those few individuals, who get the flu after the shot because their immune systems did not produce a strong enough immune response, are likely to have a much milder illness.
Remember also that your body needs 2 to 3 weeks to make antibodies to fight the flu. If you get the “real flu” shortly after receiving the shot, your body may not have had enough time to build protection. In this case, you got the flu from another person—not from the shot! SO GET YOUR FLU SHOT EARLY IN THE FLU SEASON– ideally, now!
Myth 2: The flu shot may not be safe. Fact: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) carefully monitor the safety of all vaccines used in the U.S. From the CDC: “Almost all people who receive influenza vaccine have no serious problems from it. However, on rare occasions, flu vaccination can cause serious problems, such as severe allergic reactions.” We will ask you about allergies to previous vaccines or any ingredient of the vaccine (like eggs), and also about any symptoms of current illness before we give the shot.
Most adverse reactions to the flu shot are minor discomforts like soreness at the injection site, mild fever, or aches. Mild symptoms like these are caused by your immune system’s reaction to the vaccine. Mild symptoms do not mean that you have the flu. Remember, the CDC recommends “universal vaccination” of all persons over 6 months because any risk or discomfort it may present is far less that the risk of serious complications or death from the flu.
Myth 3: I never get the flu; it’s only the flu; or I’m young and healthy—only elderly or sick people die from flu complications. Fact: Humans have little or no pre-existing immunity to the flu because the virus’s genetic material is always changing. Furthermore, the flu can be very serious even if you are not in a risk group. Last flu season, 61% of all flu-related hospitalizations were for adults ages 18 to 64. Remember that working adults go out in public each day, shaking hands, sharing telephones, keyboards, etc. with hundreds of others—some of them flu carriers. CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden warns, “Actually, on average, flu is not a mild illness. It can make you pretty sick; knock you out for a day or two or three. For too many people, it ends up sending them to the hospital or to the intensive care unit — and, tragically, some people may die from it. … It can be very serious. And even for those for whom it’s an average case, it’s no picnic.”
Myth 4: The shot hurts too much! Fact: It’s a tiny injection, a small needle, and a small amount of vaccine. And besides, the flu hurts a lot more.
If you have avoided the flu shot in previous years, I hope I have given you some solid information that will cause you to reconsider that decision this year! If you’re not convinced, let me add three final thoughts:
- Most women are caregivers. Children, aging parents, or spouses are depending on your good health each day. Your stress level rises when those roles are disrupted.
- The flu shot is not recommended for infants under 6 months and for a few other individuals. You can pass the flu to these persons even before you realize you are sick. Their protection depends on reducing the prevalence of the flu in the general public.
- For our expectant moms: pregnant women are at higher risk for serious complications from the flu. When the vaccine is given during pregnancy, it also provides protection for your baby who cannot receive the vaccine directly until he or she is 6 months old. Women who are breastfeeding may also be vaccinated.
The time for your flu shot is now! You don’t need an appointment, but please call your physician’s nurse and arrange to stop by. We will have your chart ready and verify that you have no medical reason to avoid the flu shot (example, a previous serious allergic reaction).
Best wishes for a healthy fall and winter.