Flu shot myths and facts everyone needs to know
May 30, 2018

Flu shot myths and facts everyone needs to know

By: Ellen Blaine, MPH

The CDC recommends a flu shot for everyone 6 months and older.  Yet only half of Americans get vaccinated each year. Among those who are lagging way behind are those who are most vulnerable to serious complications. This includes pregnant women, children and older adults. It also includes the 1/3 of people aged 50-64 with medical conditions that put them at high risk. Do any of these describe someone you know?

If you get the flu, it could make you miserable but leave you unharmed. Harder to bear would be the thought that you gave a preventable virus to someone you wish you had protected.

You’re contagious for about a week with the flu. Kids can be contagious for two weeks. That helps explain why 111 million days, and $7 billion, are lost each year in workplace productivity in the U.S. The costs of flu are human and economic. 

Here are 10 myth-busting flu facts that can show you why taking that influenza shot should be a top priority right now.

1.    MYTH: The flu shot can give you the flu.

No. The flu shot cannot give you the flu. The vaccines recommended by the CDC are made with either inactivated viruses that are not infectious or no viruses at all. The most common reactions to the vaccine are soreness, redness, tenderness, or swelling at the site of injection.

2.    MYTH: I got a flu shot last year, so I don’t need another one this year.

No. Annual flu shots are the best way to protect yourself and those around you from getting and spreading the influenza virus. The influenza virus changes every year so the vaccine is updated to protect you against the strains circulating that year. Since influenza vaccines are designed to protect you through one flu season running October through May, you should get a new one each season. Studies have also shown that the vaccine’s effectiveness can decrease over time, especially among older adults. So, it is very important to make sure you and your loved ones are protected each year. Get your flu shot onsite from your Healthstat provider. Or, if your health and wellness center doesn’t serve everyone in your family, use the HealthMap Vaccine Finder. It will help you find a local place to get the whole gang covered.

3.    MYTH: It’s better to get the flu than the flu shot.

Dangerous! Influenza is a very serious illness. As of 2014, influenza and pneumonia were the 8th leading cause of death in the US. On the other hand, the influenza vaccine protects you from getting sick, makes the flu milder if you get it, and dramatically reduces flu-related hospitalizations. Getting the influenza vaccine is quick and easy and will save you from missing school, work, or time with your loved ones.

4.    MYTH: You can still get the flu even if you get the flu shot.

We admit, this one’s not really a myth – but it’s not entirely true, either.

The influenza vaccine does not cause the flu, but it is possible to have flu-like symptoms even if you get vaccinated. This may be because you have another respiratory virus. Some people also equate the so-called stomach flu with the influenza virus. Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are gastrointestinal issues while influenza is a respiratory illness.

More to the point, it is possible to catch the influenza virus during the two weeks it takes your body to develop immunity after getting the vaccine.

There is also variation in how well the vaccine works each year. This variation depends on the age and health of the person getting the vaccine and how well the vaccine matches the virus that season. Get the influenza shot before influenza season begins so you have the best chance of being protected. And rest assured that if you do get sick, the flu vaccine may make your illness milder.

5.    MYTH: Young children, pregnant women, people with chronic conditions, and older adults should not get flu shots.

No! These groups of people are most vulnerable to flu-related complications and should be strongly encouraged to get vaccinated. The CDC recommends the flu shot for anyone over 6 months old, and offers guidance on how clinicians can answer questions from parents who may be reluctant to vaccinate children. Studies have shown that the vaccine reduces the risk of hospitalization by more than 70 percent for any age group. The vaccine protects pregnant women and their babies for 6 months after birth and is 92 percent effective in preventing infant hospitalization. It also decreases the likelihood of a miscarriage and other birth complications.

6.    MYTH: Flu shots contain harmful preservatives that are toxic to humans.

No. Healthstat’s product of choice for influenza vaccination is a single dose pre-filled syringe. Single-dose syringes and vials do not contain the preservative that’s found in multi-dose vials.

But consider this. Thimerosal is added to multi-dose vials to protect against contamination of the vial by bacteria or fungi. Multiple studies have shown that this preservative is not dangerous to humans. It is made with ethylmercury, which clears out of the body very quickly and is not likely to cause harm. This chemical is completely different from methylmercury, the substance found in certain types of fish that can be toxic to humans in high exposure levels. If you still want to avoid thimerosal or you are allergic, there are alternative flu shots available.

7.    MYTH: Antibiotics will help you feel better if you have the flu.

Incorrect! Antibiotics are used for treating bacterial infections. The flu is caused by a virus and can be treated with prescription antiviral medications. Antivirals can help reduce the severity of the flu and decrease sick time by a few days. Flu medications should not be used as a substitution for the influenza vaccine.

8.    MYTH: You can’t spread the flu when you don’t feel sick.

Typhoid Mary!! Actually, 20-30 percent of people carrying the flu have no symptoms. This means it is still possible to spread the flu to others when you’re feeling healthy.

9.    MYTH: I’ve never had the flu, so I probably won’t get it.

No. Everyone who is exposed to the flu is affected by the flu. Some people just react differently to it. As with #8 above, you are contagious to those around you because of the virus you host. It doesn’t have to affect you to make you a danger to others.

Also, it’s a bit like saying that you’ve never been hit by a car so you’re not going to look both ways before you cross the street. It may just be luck, and luck is not a sound plan.

10.  MYTH: It’s a good idea to get the flu shot as late as possible so it lasts through the whole flu season.

NO.  Timing is everything. The CDC recommends getting the flu shot by the end of October so it is effective once peak season begins in December. If you miss this deadline, you can still get vaccinated at any time during the influenza season. One dose of the flu vaccine protects most people throughout the entire influenza season. Immunity does wear off faster with age, so people over 65 may consider a higher dose vaccine or flu shots 6 months apart.