So, I feel like I spend hours and hours every day (this may be a slight exaggeration) talking to people about the flu shot. I guess by this time of year, when we are in the full swing of flu season, people who are already convinced of the vaccine’s importance have gotten it and those that I’m seeing in my clinic who haven’t gotten it are either just late to the game or truly need some talking through the facts and fictions about the flu shot. So, in an effort to get the word out more universally, I am going to distill my flu vaccine counseling down into an easy to digest blog. I hope that you enjoy it, find it informative, and will share it with your friends and family. Please spread the word about this life-saving intervention.
First, a little clarification about the Influenza virus. Every day I get folks telling me that they got the flu shot but that they were “sicker that year than ever before”. The flu shot was never meant to be a one stop shop for preventing illness. There are numerous other viruses out there that can cause a flu-like illness that are not the flu. Here is what true Influenza looks like. It comes on suddenly. One day you’re fine. The next day it feels like you were hit by a truck. Your body hurts. Your eyeballs hurt. You have a high fever, cough, headache, sore throat, and fatigue. It lasts, typically… a week. Unless, of course, you have complications of the flu that may linger longer. Also, the “stomach flu” is NOT the flu. This is a viral stomach bug. Only occasionally does a person with the flu have vomiting (maybe a little more common in kids than adults) and diarrhea is not part of the picture. If you’ve got vomiting and diarrhea, you’ve got something else and the flu shot doesn’t help with that – I wish it did. I HATE vomiting!
1. “The flu shot causes the flu.” This, my friends, is false. The flu shot is a killed virus vaccine and, as such, cannot cause the illness it is meant to protect against. Live attenuated virus vaccines can make those with a suppressed immune system ill but not killed virus vaccines like the flu shot. “But I felt so cruddy after the shot”, you say. It is not uncommon to feel a bit under the weather after the flu shot – or any shot, for that matter. A bit of achiness, mild fatigue, even low grade fever is considered a normal response and is just your body’s immune system kicking into gear. It is NOT the flu. Trust me. The flu is much worse. Scenario #2: It takes 2 weeks before the flu shot even works and it is possible to be exposed to and contract the flu in that 2 weeks when you are not yet protected. This is why it is SO important to get your flu shot in the early fall. That way, by the time we see the flu in the winter months, your immune system is ready for the fight.
2. “The flu shot is not that effective. It won’t help me anyway.” Au contraire, mon frere. Even though the flu shot is the “best guess” for what strains will be circulating that year and is not always spot on, it still protects you from serious complications of the flu. The Northern and Southern Hemisphere flu seasons are exactly opposite of each other. We look to the Southern Hemisphere’s flu season to try to predict what is heading our way. Some years’ guesses are better than others but that doesn’t mean the vaccine is not worth getting. We know this from looking at data regarding people who died from the flu. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) looked at all of the pediatric deaths during the 2012-2013 flu season and found that 90% of these deaths had been in children not vaccinated for the flu. And, since the flu vaccine was introduced in 1933, we have not seen a flu pandemic such as the 1918 Spanish Flu that killed nearly 50 million people. The flu vaccine works. Moving on.
3. “I’m Healthy. I don’t need a flu shot. I’ll get over it.” Well, maybe. But even healthy people have serious complications from the flu like pneumonia, respiratory failure, and death. It is true that those with chronic illness, the elderly, babies, and pregnant women are at greatest risk. But remember those children who died in 2012-2013 from the flu? 40% of those kids had absolutely NO chronic illness or other risks for serious complications. And so what if you are healthy and you do get over it? What about all of those around you? What about those you come into contact with out in the world? Shouldn’t we try to protect each other and keep each other healthy as well? You. Yes, you. You are contagious for approximately 2 days before you even have one symptom. And there you are, out there in the world touching things, shaking people’s hands, and spreading germs that you don’t even know you have.
4. “I prefer to get my immunity naturally.” Nope. Doesn’t work that way with the flu. The flu strains change each year. Having the flu one year does not prevent you from getting the flu the next year.
1. You are more likely to have serious consequences from the flu than from the other infections for which we more readily vaccinate. In 2015 we had our first measles-related death in over a decade. By contrast, the CDC estimates that the average number of influenza-related deaths in the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 flu seasons ranged from 12,000-56,000 annually in the US (250,000-500,000 worldwide). Statistically speaking, you should absolutely get your flu shot. PS – Please don’t use this as reason not to vaccinate for measles or other infections. Vaccination is the reason we don’t have the number of deaths from these illnesses that we used to have.
2. This year, there are two different circulating strains of the flu. If you had the flu before you had a chance to get the flu shot, you should still get the flu shot to protect you from getting the other strain that is out there.
3. There is NO mercury in the flu shot unless you are getting a vaccine drawn from a multi dose vial. And if you are getting your vaccine from a multi dose vial, the amount in one pediatric dose is equivalent to eating one 3 oz can of tuna fish. Not so scary is it? Also, the type of mercury in that multi dose vial is Ethyl mercury (like my sweet aunt Ethyl, not dangerous at all) which is cleared much more rapidly and is less harmful than Methyl mercury (the kind found more commonly in that can of tuna).
4. Everyone needs a flu shot – to protect themselves and their loved ones and to protect those more vulnerable in our community. The flu shot can be given as early as 6 months of age (at which time the vaccine is actually given in two doses spread apart by a month, after that it is one dose per year).
5. In an ideal world, everyone gets the flu shot by Halloween. But it’s not too late to get the shot now. Flu season typically lasts into the spring, some years running as late as May.
So, please protect yourself and those around you. Get your flu shot. And if you have more questions or concerns… ask your provider. Don’t let misinformation and misunderstandings keep you from being healthy and safe!