5 Myths About Getting a Flu Shot

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Flu vaccine with syringe and stethoscope

To get a flu shot or not get a flu shot? That is the question asked every single autumn, even though the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has been recommending a yearly flu shot for everyone ages 6 months and older since 2010.

Here are five of the most common flu shots myths–and some accurate information to help you make an informed decision.

Myth No. 1: I’ll get the flu!

The flu shot cannot give you influenza, a serious, potentially deadly respiratory infection that’s commonly known as the flu. Traditional flu shots–the kind administered as an injection–do not contain any live flu viruses, and you must be infected with live influenza virus to contract the flu.

Some “flu shots” are now administered via a nasal spray. These vaccinations do contain a small amount of live flu virus, but the virus has been weakened so that they cannot cause a flu infection. (How? Scientists manipulate so it can only thrive in cool temperatures. Such viruses cannot cause infection in the warm environment of the human body.)

Myth No. 2: It’s better to get the flu than a flu shot.

A flu shot can cause mild and temporary discomfort; the flu can kill you.

Most people who get the flu do not die, but not getting a flu shot increases your risk of contracting the flu, thereby increasing your risk of influenza-associated hospitalization and death. During the 2013-14 flu season, 397,000 Americans were hospitalized with the flu, and 111 children and an unknown number of adults died of influenza.

The flu is much worse than a simple cold. The symptoms–cough, headache, body aches, nasal congestion, fever and lack of energy–can last for weeks.

In contrast, the side effects of flu vaccination are generally mild–soreness and redness at the injection site, runny nose, headache, low fever–and typically only last a few days.

Myth No. 3: I should wait to get vaccinated, so my immunity will last until the end of flu season.

Flu season in the United States can run from early October into May; it usually peaks in the middle of winter. That’s why health experts recommend getting a flu vaccine as early as possible. It takes about two weeks post-vaccination for immunity to kick in, and your risk of catching the flu during peak flu season, if you wait to be vaccinated, is greater than your risk of “running out” of immunity if you vaccinate early.

Vaccine-induced immunity to the flu usually lasts 6 to 8 months, so if you get your vaccination early, you should be protected throughout flu season.

Myth No. 4: I’m healthy, so I don’t need a flu shot.

Everyone ages 6 months and older should get a flu shot.

That wasn’t always the recommendation. In years past–largely due to concerns about vaccine availability–flu vaccination was recommended for children, the elderly and people with medical conditions that put them at high risk of either catching the flu or developing serious complications.

Yet even then, researchers and health scientists knew that an annual flu vaccination was the most effective way to prevent influenza. They also realized that ever-changing and evolving vaccination recommendations were confusing people. So in 2010, the CDC began recommending universal flu vaccination for everyone ages 6 months and older.

Getting your flu shot will also help protect people who can’t get a flu shot, including babies under the age of 6 months and people with weakened immune systems, because you’ll be less likely to spread influenza.

Myth No. 5: The flu shot isn’t very effective.

No vaccination is 100% effective. And establishing effectiveness can be tricky: is a vaccine “effective” if it prevents the disease? Or if it lessens the severity of the disease and prevents serious medical complications?

Flu vaccination effectiveness varies from year to year and person to person. That’s because some people have a more robust immune response to vaccination than others and because the types of flu viruses circulating differ each year. Each year’s flu vaccine is built to provide protection against the strains of flu predicted to circulate that year, but sometimes, those predictions are wrong. When the flu viruses in circulation match the viruses in the vaccine, flu vaccination decreases the risk of flu infection by 50 to 60%.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Nov 13

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