Getting mixed messages about the flu shot? Here's what you need to know

It’s that time of year again, when your health care providers, pharmacies, grocery stores, and commercials diligently remind you to get your flu shot. Some even reward you for doing so (I see that $10 gift card offer, Publix). But what about your friend who swears it gave her the flu? Or your friend who’s pregnant? What if you yourself are thinking of trying to conceive? There's some conflicting information out there, but luckily, we’re going to sort it all out.

What even is the Flu, anyway?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the influenza virus (the proper name for the flu) is spread through the droplets produced when a sick person coughs, sneezes, or talks, and it thrives between the months of October-May. The virus can be spread up to a full day before flu symptoms kick in—meaning, unless you can see into the future, you can easily be exposed, even if you’re careful with the company you keep. A robust immune system during flu season is obviously ideal; however, some people simply can’t help it if their immune system is weak. Those most at risk, and more likely to come down with the flu, are young children, pregnant women, those on medications that may suppress the immune systems (chemo, HIV medications) and the elderly (particularly those in nursing homes). If they do get the flu, they’re also at a higher risk for being hospitalized for flu-related complications.

What’s in the Flu Shot?

Essentially dead (or “inactive”) strains of the virus, to put it simply. Exposing your body to small amounts of the influenza virus causes your immune system to develop specific flu-fighting antibodies (a protein that helps the immune system). These antibodies, if present, help your immune system better fight off the flu if exposed. You can think of them as very, very small flu warriors.

Flu Shot: Fact and Fiction

You’ve probably had a friend, coworker, or family member denounce the flu vaccine because either “it gave me the flu” or “I still got the flu”. These complaints are very common, and have a lot of us wondering “well, should I still get my shot, then?”. Luckily, the CDC has made a point to get down to the bottom of these flu shot excuses.

Fiction: The flu vaccine will give you the flu.

Fact: The flu vaccine can not give you the flu. Because the vaccine uses inactive strains, or from proteins from a virus (and not the actual virus itself), your body does not respond to them in the same way it would an active flu virus. According to the CDC, "The weakened viruses are cold-adapted, which means they are designed to only cause infection at the cooler temperatures found within the nose. The viruses cannot infect the lungs or other areas where warmer temperatures exist."

The flu shot can result in some common side effects, like soreness and redness at the injection site, headache, a low-grade fever, nausea, and muscle aches, all of which should be mild and resolve in a few days.

Fiction: You can't get the flu if you've gotten vaccinated.

Fact: While your overall risk post-flu shot is decreased 40-60%, you unfortunately can still get the flu. If you are exposed before your body has made antibodies ( it can take up to two weeks after vaccination to create them) or if you are exposed to a strain that wasn’t covered by the vaccine, you may get the flu. However, studies have shown that those who have gotten the flu vaccine typically experience less severe flu symptoms. Sign me up!

Fiction: You shouldn't get the shot if you're pregnant or planning to become pregnant.

Fact: According to American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), it is recommended that all pregnant women get the flu shot. In pregnancy, the immune system is weakened, putting pregnant women at a higher risk of developing the flu, which can be life-threatening. Additionally, the flu antibodies generated following a flu shot may be passed on to the baby at delivery (which is awesome, because the CDC does not recommend the flu shot be administered until babies are at least 6 months old). For those of you considering pregnancy, ACOG reports that there is no increased risk of miscarriage or impact on fertility following vaccination. The safety and efficacy of the flu shot for pregnant or trying-to-be-pregnant mothers far outweighs the potential risks of developing the flu.

So... I really should get the flu shot?

Yes, you really should. The flu vaccine is safe and recommended for almost everyone. And you do actually need to get it every year. The CDC recommends an annual vaccine for a few reasons; for one, your immune system weakens over time, so it’s good to get it re-boosted, so to speak. The flu shot can also change from year to year. Each year, researchers use recent data to predict which flu strains may be most popular in the upcoming flu season. Those specific strains will be included in the vaccine. But, just like in the fashion world, they may not have been so en-vogue last year. And if not? Those strains probably weren’t included in the last vaccine you received. So the bottom line here: get the flu shot, and get it every year.

Kara Earthman

Kara Earthman is a Women's Health Nurse Practitioner (WHNP) and writer living and working in Nashville, TN. You can find more of Kara's work on her blog EarthWoman.

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