If you’ve ever come down with the flu, you know how grueling and miserable those two weeks can be. But if you’ve been lucky enough to avoid it all these years, you might be one of the many who misconstrue this contagious and potentially deadly disease as not that bad. However, there’s no denying the truth: The flu is serious stuff. In fact, every year in the U.S., millions of people get sick, hundreds of thousands are hospitalized, and tens of thousands die from flu. “In the 2017-2018 flu season alone, almost 80,000 people died from flu and flu-related complications and about 180 of them were children — most of whom were unvaccinated,” says Kathy Neuzil, MD, director of the Center for Vaccine Development at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and NFID Board member.
The single best way to prevent the flu? Get a flu shot every year. Yet, despite the staggering stats above, about half of Americans choose not to get vaccinated, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Many think it doesn’t work, some think it isn’t safe, and others think practicing healthy habits will prevent the flu in the first place. Dr. Neuzil believes that one of the main reasons the flu is misunderstood is because the term “flu” is linked to a myriad of illnesses, including the common cold and other diseases that have flu-like symptoms. But, as those who have been diagnosed know, the flu is not a common cold, and it comes with many agonizing symptoms. So, to set the record straight, we asked experts to unveil the biggest flu shot myths.
Myth: The flu shot can give you the flu
You’ve probably heard someone say that getting the flu shot actually gave them the flu. Impossible! “The virus used in the shot is killed so it generates immune response,” explains Mary Anne Jackson, MD, Director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Mercy-Kansas City. While it’s true that you may get a sore arm from the vaccine, it’s not going to give you systemic symptoms like high fevers, a cough or vomiting. “If you get influenza within a day of vaccine, it’s because it takes two weeks for the immune response for those 9 years old and older, and two vaccines 28 days apart are needed in those younger, plus two weeks for response,” she adds.
Myth: The flu shot doesn’t work
Not true! In fact, the flu vaccination not only prevents illness, but research shows that it also reduces the severity and duration of illness. “While the current vaccine is only partially effective at preventing flu, even if you do get the flu, it’s going to be less severe than if you hadn’t received the flu vaccine,” says Dr. Neuzil. “You’re less likely to be hospitalized with influenza, and your illness won’t last as long if you get vaccinated, plus you are also less likely to spread the flu to others who may be more vulnerable, such as people with chronic health conditions or the elderly.”
Myth: Once influenza hits, it’s too late to get the flu shot
Not exactly. While the vaccine won’t help you shake the case of the flu you just came down with, getting the vaccine once you’re well again will help prevent you from getting it again (yes, it’s possible to get it twice in one season). “Typically three or more viruses circulate each season — usually influenza A early and influenza B later in the season,” says Dr. Jackson. “Even if you put off vaccination and ended up contracting influenza, you are only immune to that particular strain.”
Myth: You don’t need the flu shot every year
It’s important to get vaccinated each year because the flu virus is constantly changing, explains Dr. Neuzil, so the vaccine usually changes every year to match circulating flu viruses. “Immune protection from the flu vaccine declines over time, which is another reason that annual vaccination is critical to provide the best protection,” she says. The CDC recommends annual vaccination for everyone age 6 months and older.
Myth: The flu vaccine is not safe for pregnant women
Pregnant women represent one of the highest risk groups for severe flu, which is all the more reason for them to get vaccinated. That’s why mostly all practitioners recommend the flu vaccine to their patients who are expecting. “The flu vaccine is the best defense a pregnant woman has against the flu, and the vaccine also produces antibodies that are passed to the fetus and stay with the child during a time when it is too young to be vaccinated,” says Amesh Adalja, MD, infectious disease physician in Pittsburgh, PA, and Senior Scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.