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4 Myths About the Flu Shot

Sarah Stevenson
By Sarah StevensonDecember 30, 2013
Myths About The Flu Shot

You’ve heard a lot about the flu vaccine, but is it myth or truth? Get the facts about the flu shot and its role in preventing the spread of disease.

Influenza is not the “stomach flu”—it’s a serious disease that can affect anyone, and though there are treatments to lessen its severity, the flu has no cure. The CDC recommends the flu vaccine as the most effective protection we now have against contracting and spreading influenza. But as of November, only about 39.5 percent of Americans were vaccinated. One reason for the lag in vaccination coverage is the pervasiveness of myths about the flu shot. There’s a lot of information out there that’s misguided, outdated, or simply inaccurate. Not sure what to believe? We’ve delved into the most reliable information we could find and summarized what you need to know about flu vaccines.

An Introduction to the Flu Shot

It was the early 1930s when the influenza virus itself was first discovered, though the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 had already brought it to horrible prominence (TIME magazine). The first working vaccine was used on soldiers during World War II, developed with the help of Dr. Jonas Salk, who later created the polio vaccine.

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But in 1976, the flu shot suffered a PR setback. A mass-vaccination program, promoted by President Gerald Ford, was meant to ward off a possible pandemic of swine flu. Of the 40 million Americans vaccinated, several hundred developed a severe long-term illness called Guillain-Barre syndrome—an extremely tiny percentage and far fewer than the number debilitated by influenza itself, but enough to scare people. Flu shots nowadays are carefully administrated, with awareness of the possible risks to individuals depending on medical history.

Flu shots help protect us against the influenza virus by using inactivated (inert) flu viruses to prompt the development of antibodies by the immune system. “An annual seasonal flu vaccine (either the flu shot or the nasal-spray flu vaccine) is the best way to reduce the chances that you will get seasonal flu and spread it to others,” says the CDC. Because influenza viruses are constantly changing, each year the vaccine is updated to reflect the most prevalent strains. That’s why it’s important to get a flu shot every year.

Common Flu Shot Myths

  • You might get the flu from the flu vaccine. Yes, there are influenza viruses in the flu shot, but they are inactive and not infectious. It is possible to get side effects that may feel a bit like the flu, such as soreness at the injection site, aches, or mild fever. In addition, it takes about two weeks for the vaccine to take effect, so it is possible to come down with the flu before the shot has a chance to work. Lastly, the flu shot contains three (sometimes four) of the most common strains for any given flu seasons, so it’s still possible to come down with a strain of flu not covered by the vaccine.
  • People with egg allergies should not get the flu shot. Many flu vaccines are grown inside chicken eggs, which can understandably cause concern for those with egg allergies. Fortunately, an egg allergy isn’t necessarily a problem when it comes to the flu shot. If you’ve had a severe allergic reaction to eggs, like anaphylaxis or vomiting, then your health care provider may advise against getting the flu shot or recommend an egg-free vaccine such as Flublok. For those with only mild egg allergies, the regular flu shot may be administered with precautions. Make sure the vaccine administrator is informed of any allergies (CDC).
  • It’s better to get the flu than the flu vaccine. Influenza is a potentially dangerous infection. For high-risk groups such as children, seniors, and people with chronic health conditions like heart disease or diabetes, the flu can lead to severe complications such as bronchitis or pneumonia, resulting in hospitalization and even death. In fact, an estimated 90 percent of flu-related deaths and over 60 percent of flu hospitalizations occur in adults aged 65 and older, according to the CDC. Getting your flu shot is a much safer choice.
  • You don’t need to get the flu shot if you got one last year. The CDC recommends an annual flu vaccine for two major reasons. First, the flu strains used in the vaccine usually change from year to year to better protect against the most prevalent viruses. Even if the strains haven’t changed, though, your immune protection from the shot decreases over time, so you’ll be better protected with an annual shot. Seniors may want to opt for a high-dose vaccine, because there is some evidence that immunity declines more quickly in older people. In most adults, though, the flu shot should last for the entire season.

Why It’s Important to Get Vaccinated

“Getting a yearly flu vaccine is extremely important for adults 65 years and older, as well as their caregivers,” says Dr. Lisa Grohskopf, medical officer in CDC’s Influenza Division. “Last flu season was particularly hard on seniors, causing more hospitalizations and deaths than in previous seasons. At this point, flu activity is starting to increase across the country. Everyone 65 years and older and anyone who cares for them should get vaccinated if they haven’t already done so.”

Generally, the CDC recommends getting a flu shot as soon as possible after the vaccine becomes available for that season—usually in the fall. That will give your body enough time to develop antibodies before viruses really start circulating in the population. However, you can still get vaccinated throughout the flu season, which can last as late as May. In fact, flu season doesn’t typically peak until February. As long as flu is circulating, vaccination can provide protection against the flu. And there’s more good news for seniors: Medicare Part B coverage means they can get their annual flu shot free of charge.

We hope our guide to flu shots has helped clarify the history and science behind flu vaccination. Let us know what you think in the comments!

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A Place for Mom is one of CDC’s Flu Vaccination Digital Ambassadors. CDC’s Flu Vaccination Digital Ambassador program recognizes online publishers who commit to posting about flu vaccination multiple times throughout the season. The Flu Vaccination Digital Ambassadors are integral to raising awareness about the importance of flu vaccination among the general public as well as individuals at high risk for severe complications from flu.

Sarah Stevenson
Sarah Stevenson

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