But the question of whether or not you should get a flu shot is a valid one, especially with the amount and intensity of the debate these days.
Before we get started, please note that with any question of a medical nature, the best counsel you can get is from your primary care physician. Trust your doctor, not former TV celebrities, suspicious articles that you read on the Internet or secondhand accounts from friends (unless they’re medical professionals).
We will do our best to provide the facts from trusted sources to help you understand what the flu shot is, how it works, its potential side effects and the implications of getting or not getting vaccinated.
What Is Influenza or “The Flu?”
There’s a good chance that everyone reading this has had a cold before, perhaps even a nasty one. Common colds and influenza have a lot in common. They’re both viral infections that primarily affect the respiratory system. Depending on your individual immune response, you could have either influenza or a cold, and maybe not really know the difference.
But where influenza distinguishes itself is on the type and severity of symptoms. Influenza can cause severe complications, especially for at-risk groups like infants and the elderly. In 2010 over 53,000 people died from complications of respiratory illness, mainly the flu or pneumonia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
This handy chart from WebMD illustrates the most common symptoms and how they present themselves in influenza and the common cold.
|Fever||Rare||Usually, high (100-102 degrees), lasts three to four days|
|General Aches, Pains||Slight||Usually, often severe|
|Fatigue, Weakness||Mild||Common, lasting two to three weeks|
|Extreme Exhaustion||Never||Early and prominent|
|Chest Discomfort, Cough||Mild to Moderate – Hacking||
Common, can become severe
One important thing to note is that there is not just one flu virus. The influenza virus is actually divided into three different types – A, B and C.
Influenza A viruses are further divided into strains based on the proteins on the surface of the virus: the hemagglutinin (H) and the neuraminidase (N). One of the most common strains of influenza is H1N1.
Influenza B viruses are named after their region of origin. For example, Yamagata and Victoria are two of the most historic lineages.
Influenza C viruses are generally less severe and are generally not known to cause significant outbreaks.
“Flu season” refers to the peak times during the year in which outbreaks of influenza are the most common. Typically, the season begins in October, peaking in February and ending generally by April.
How Do Flu Shots Work?
The flu shot is a vaccine used to illicit an immune response so that your body is better equipped to fight off the virus if it enters your body. The most common influenza vaccine is a trivalent vaccine, meaning it is created to protect against the three most common flu viruses. The 2014 influenza vaccine is formulated to protect against H1N1, H3N2 and a common influenza B virus.
The flu shot works like any vaccine. In this case, the three common strains listed above are injected into your body in a severely weakened or dormant state. This allows your body to produce antibodies meant to destroy the virus if it enters later on.
Basically, it’s a head start or a heads-up to your immune system. The flu vaccine works like a blueprint to allow your body to mount its own defense. Should you become infected with one of the strains in the vaccine, your body should have the weapons available to fight it off quickly and effectively.
In addition to protecting your body from the common flu strains, the vaccine also helps prevent the spread of flu to other people. Influenza is easily spread from person to person. If you don’t have influenza, you can’t transmit it to others.
Who Should Not Get a Flu Vaccine?
While the influenza vaccine is recommended by the CDC for everyone over the age of 6 months, there are some people with specific allergies or medical conditions that should not get the vaccine:
- People who have had previous severe allergic reactions to an influenza vaccine
- People with certain egg or dairy allergies (many flu vaccines contain a small amount of egg protein)
- People with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare immune disorder
You should also only get the flu shot when you’re feeling generally well or healthy. Receiving the vaccine when you are sick can reduce its effectiveness.
What Happens if You Get a Flu Vaccine?
The flu shot is the most effective way of protecting yourself and others around you from the flu.
While it’s not guaranteed that you will be immune, your chances of becoming infected are significantly reduced.
You will not get the flu from a flu shot.
However, you may experience some mild complications, including
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Tenderness, swelling or reduced range of motion in the arm that was injected
- Mild cold or flu-like symptoms
In addition, children who have received either the influenza vaccine and/or pneumococcal vaccine (PCV13) may be at increased risk of seizure caused by fevers.
Severe reactions, including behavior changes, hives, swelling and difficulty breathing are rare, but possible.
If you get a flu shot and experience moderate or severe side effects, contact your doctor. Afterwards, you should report your experience to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS).
What Happens if You Choose Not to Get a Flu Vaccine?
You may or may not get the flu. But your chances of contracting influenza are certainly much higher and will increase as flu season carries on.
Even if you practice meticulous personal hygiene, influenza is easily spread from person to person. The more people who have it, the more people who spread it.
Influenza is nothing to scoff at. If you’ve had it before, you don’t want it again. It’s a potentially fatal disease, especially if you belong to high-risk groups. Even if you’ve never had influenza before, getting a flu shot is the best way to keep that streak alive.
Regardless of whether you choose to get vaccinated, make sure you are taking good precautions to help limit the spread of infections. These include avoiding contact with people who are sick, washing your hands frequently, and covering your nose and mouth when you sneeze and cough. Sounds like common sense, but these precautions can be very effective in curtailing the spread of germs and viruses.
If you still have questions or concerns, make sure to discuss them with your doctor.
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