The Flu Vaccine: Why you need one

Answers to some of the your frequent questions.

It’s that time of year again.  You’ll be hearing about it everywhere. Your doctor will be recommending it.  It’s the flu vaccine!  Here are answers to some of the most frequent questions I get asked as I make this recommendation to my patients.

  1. What is the flu?
    Flu is short for influenza which is a contagious respiratory illness caused by the influenza virus. It is spread by respiratory droplets when a person with the disease coughs or sneezes spreading the virus to surfaces and other people through contact with the mouth or nose.  A person is considered contagious 1 day before developing symptoms to 7 days after getting symptoms. Symptoms typically develop in 1-4 days and come on rapidly.  It is not unusual for a person to feel well in the morning and not want to get out of bed by the end of the day.  Symptoms include: fever, chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue.  Diarrhea and vomiting can occur but this is less common.  This is different from the “stomach flu” which solely has diarrhea and vomiting (+/- fever). The “stomach flu” is a completely different disease process and is not caused by the influenza virus.The flu is different from the common cold. Some of the symptoms of flu crossover with the common cold. The difference is that the flu is much more severe with a high fever and severe fatigue.  Both are caused by viruses but you can usually continue normal activity with the common cold.  With the flu you don’t want to get out of bed. There is a lab test to help diagnose the flu but usually it is based on symptoms. Influenza is typically self limiting, meaning it resolves on its own, but in some people it can turn into pneumonia which, when severe, can cause hospitalization and death.
  2. Why is there a vaccine?
    The CDC states that the single best way to prevent influenza is with the vaccine.  Proper hand washing is a close second. The vaccine exposes the body to certain parts of the virus (not the live virus itself) so that the body makes antibodies to recognize and defeat the virus when exposed. There is a live attenuated nasal spray vaccine but it is not recommended for the 2016-2017 flu season. The vaccine is available for all but mostly so that those most vulnerable to the illness will be protected.  For most people the flu is debilitating and causes missed work and miserable symptoms but it does not cause hospitalization.  People who are 65 years and older, those with certain chronic medical conditions, pregnant women and young children (especially under 6 months of age) are the most susceptible to severe disease that can cause hospitalization and death.
  3. Who needs the vaccine?
    The simple answer is everyone 6 months of age and over.   Those who shouldn’t include babies under 6 months and those with severe allergies to the flu shot or it’s components. Those with an egg allergy, Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS, a neurological condition) or if concurrently ill should have a conversation with their doctor regarding the vaccine. There are different types of vaccines including a high dose for those 65 and older and you should discuss with your doctor which is best for you.  It takes 2 weeks to build up the antibodies and have complete protection.
  4. Can I get the flu from the vaccine?
    A common reason I hear why people don’t get the vaccine is that they get “the flu” every time they receive the flu vaccine.  This is simply not true.  I have had people argue with me about this but it is not possible.  The flu vaccine is made of deactivated components of the flu which are not infectious at all.  It is not uncommon to have a mild reaction to the vaccine with fever and body aches but this usually only lasts 1-2 days (considerably less that the flu).  It is also possible to get another “common cold” virus or the flu virus right after the vaccine that can cause an illness.  Remember that full immunity is not complete until 2 weeks.
  5. How effective is the vaccine?
    First a primer on how the flu vaccine is created.  Researchers at the CDC are constantly tracking the changing types of flu viruses (also called antigenic drift) as it moves through other countries.  Based on this information, they make their best guess at what the influenza virus will be when it hits the US.  This information is given to the vaccine manufacturers and the vaccine is made. Sometimes this guess is very good and the vaccine conveys good protection.  Other times it is not as good and protection is less.Based on studies, the average protection is around  50-60%. This may sound low but if you think about the general population, this translates to a lot of people being protected and safe from hospitalization and death. Studies also show that when you get the vaccine your symptoms are typically much less severe.  The vaccine is also effective at reducing hospitalization in at risk populations (the elderly, babies and those with certain chronic medical conditions).
  6. Is the flu vaccine safe?
    In short, the flu vaccine is very safe.  There are some common mild reactions including soreness, redness, and swelling at the shot site, headache, fever, nausea and muscle aches.  More severe reactions such as anaphylaxis and GBS are exceedingly rare at 1-2 cases per 1 million vaccinations.  GBS is actually more common in those that get the flu illness than those who get the vaccine!  The vaccine is safe during pregnancy and is recommended to provide some immunity to the developing baby.  Thimerosal is a preservative in some of the flu vaccines to prevent contamination by bacteria.  Extensive studies have been done on the substance and conclusions show it is safe and easily eliminated from the body. If this is still a concern for you, there is a “preservative-free” vaccine that you can request.
  7. When and where can I get my vaccine?
    In the United States, the flu season lasts from October to May.  This may be different if you are in another country. Since it takes 2 weeks to get full protection from the vaccine, it is recommended you get your vaccine before October.  If it is later than October, it is still recommended until early May when the CDC designates the close of flu season. You can get your vaccine at your primary care providers office or at a pharmacy.  Personally I prefer it be done at my office so I can have good documentation in the chart.

There you have it! If you’re reading this, odds are you are over 6 months and don’t have a reason not to get the vaccine. If you have any questions not answered in this post, please ask it in the comments below or bring it up to your doctor. If there is no reason not to get the vaccine, I would encourage you go get it done.  This will help protect you and more importantly, those who are more vulnerable around you. Every person who gets vaccinated contributes to a wider immunity in your community and helps avoid becoming an endemic area where you and your neighbors are more at risk. Lastly, wash your hands often and avoid people if you get sick to try and reduce any transmission. My family and I will be getting my flu vaccine and I hope that you will join us. I hope your flu season turns out to be a healthy one!


Photo Credit: Mark Vaughan
The brave person in the photo is Lisa Vaughan