Flu season has arrived, with many regions of the country already seeing a significant uptick in flu cases. I make sure to get vaccinated every year before flu cases appear to protect the vulnerable and sick patients I deal with on a constant basis. I’m sure you’re well aware of the yearly calls to get the flu shot, and I hope you’re one of the many who have already bared their shoulders to get vaccinated.
But I know there are holdouts every year, and I hope to address some common concerns I hear from viewers and patients alike who ask for my advice every year. I think this is especially important in light of recent news that the flu vaccine may not be as effective as in previous years.
What’s in the flu vaccine?
Vaccines work by exposing the body to either a weak virus or parts of a dead virus so that it has time to mount an attack. When your body sees the real thing, it responds rapidly with deadly force so that you either get less sick than you would have or you don’t get sick at all because the virus is killed before it can do any real damage. Combined with those viral components is something called an adjuvant, which helps ensure that your body responds to the introduced particles. Without the adjuvant, your body might not respond or may only respond weakly. Several other ingredients are added to vaccines to make sure they stay sterile and effective from the factory to your arm. Without those extra ingredients, vaccines might not work as well or may even become contaminated and cause infection. They’ve been tested millions of times and have been found to be safe.
Why do I need one every year?
Unlike the vaccines you got as a child, you need the flu vaccine every year. This is because the flu is a clever virus. It has the ability to change its building blocks in subtle ways to avoid detection by the body. Every year, the virus is different enough from the previous year to infect your body again, which is why you need a yearly shot.
Why is this year’s vaccine less effective?
This gets to recent news about how effective the vaccine is from year to year. Groups of physicians and scientists study the flu virus closely every year to see how it’s changing in the hopes of predicting which strains will infect the most people. They do this based on decades of experience and information about how strains change over time. To ensure enough doses of the vaccine are available to vaccinate most of the population, they make their best prediction before the season starts about which version of the virus to target with the vaccine and start production since otherwise they’d never have enough vaccine doses. From time to time, they don’t get it quite right because no one can truly predict the future.
If it’s less effective, should I still get the flu shot?
Without a doubt. Here’s why. Even if the vaccine isn’t 100% identical to the most common strain circulating, it can be similar and still protect you from many different flu strains. That means your body can still respond in some cases thanks to the vaccine, making your symptoms milder than they would have been and you’ll be sick for less time. There are also several strains that circulate, and if you’re lucky enough to get hit with one close enough to the vaccine strain, you might not get sick at all.
What if I’m concerned the vaccine will give me the flu?
This is the number-one comment I hear from friends, viewers and patients. It’s a myth, but it’s not entirely made up, which is why it’s so widespread and persistent. You cannot get the flu from the flu vaccine. What you can get is a mild reaction to the vaccine as your body mounts an immune response to the contents of the vaccine. For some, this is nothing more than a sore arm. For others, it feels like a mild cold. The flu is far more severe and includes the following symptoms:
- A 100oF or higher fever or feeling feverish if no thermometer is available
- A cough and/or sore throat
- A runny or stuffy nose
- Headaches and/or body aches
- Nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea
The vaccine doesn’t cause many of these symptoms and where it does, it causes symptoms far less severe than those of the flu.
I don’t get sick very often. Why do I need the vaccine?
You might be one of the lucky ones in our population who is young, fit and in good health. Even if you do get infected, chances are pretty low the flu will do anything more than keep you out of work for a few days. The problem is, the flu is incredibly infectious and you’ll pass it to several other people when you’re sick. If those people are very young or old, immunocompromised or have chronic disease, they could join the thousands who die every year from this potentially deadly infection. You might be fine, but your friends, family and loved ones could become severely ill and even die if you infect them.
You can get vaccinated at most pharmacies across the country and the shot is covered by insurance. If you usually find that the needle hurts too much, you can sometimes ask for a smaller needle. Get your flu vaccine and keep yourself and those you care about healthy.