Nobody wants to get the flu. The fever and pains are no fun — and in some cases, the flu can be life-threatening. According to the Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC), millions of people get the flu every year. Children, pregnant women, and people over 50 especially are at risk.
But many cases of the flu can be prevented by a simple annual shot. So why doesn’t everybody get one? There are some common myths about flu shots that may prevent some people from getting them. Let’s look at each of these myths, and clear them up one by one.
Myth #1: Flu shots can cause the flu
For the 2016 to 2017 flu season, the CDC recommended the use of a vaccine made from an inactivated flu virus. (An inactivated virus is one that is grown in a lab and then killed; the dead virus cannot make you sick, but helps your body build immunity to the live virus.) This year’s version is similar, and — like last year’s — is not capable of causing the flu. In earlier years, some vaccines contained a live, but weakened, flu virus. Even so, they were developed to not make you sick.
Myth #2: You don’t need a flu shot this year if you got one last year
Flu viruses are constantly changing. So vaccines are reviewed every year and updated as needed. Last season’s vaccine was developed to fight last year’s virus, but probably wouldn’t be effective this season. That’s why it’s important to get this year’s flu shot to fight this year’s virus.
Myth #3: Flu shots don’t work
The CDC conducts studies every year to determine how well that season’s vaccine protects people against flu illness. Recent studies show that vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness between 40% and 60% when the vaccines are well-matched against the viruses.
Some people believe that the flu vaccine does not work for children. It’s true that effectiveness varies by age. This is because of the way a child’s immune system changes as they grow. The CDC points to a study that found that “flu vaccines reduced children’s risk of flu-related pediatric intensive care admission by 74%.”
Kaiser Permanente Washington pediatrician and chair of immunizations John Dunn, MD, tells parents, “We get a lot of questions each year about the flu vaccine. The bottom line we tell everyone six months and older is, ‘Get a flu shot.’ You’re much better having the vaccine on board than not. Flu is a serious, potentially fatal illness. A flu vaccine is the best way to make sure you and your loved ones are protected.”
Myth #4: Flu vaccines contain harmful ingredients
Vaccine skeptics point to inactive ingredients used in some versions of flu vaccines. Thimerosal is used as a preservative and formaldehyde is used in killing the live virus to make it inactivated, as noted above. Repeated studies have shown that these substances are not harmful in the tiny amounts contained in flu vaccines.
Myth #5: Pregnant women shouldn’t be vaccinated
Some have claimed that the flu vaccine is linked to miscarriage. This isn’t the case. What is true, however, is that the flu itself is linked to miscarriage. So it’s especially important that pregnant women be vaccinated against the flu. There will be rare cases when a physician advises against this because of an underlying health condition.
Myth #6: Flu shot side effects are worse than the flu itself
The flu vaccine can occasionally cause side effects such as mild aches, fatigue, headache, or fever. Like other injections, a flu shot can cause fainting. The most common side effect is discomfort or minor pain around the site of the injection. Because the flu vaccine does not cause the flu, these symptoms aren’t as severe as those from the flu itself. And the flu can cause serious illness lasting days or weeks.
Myth #7: If I get the flu, antibiotics will make me better
Antibiotics are given to fight bacteria. They have no effect on viruses such as the flu. Taking antibiotics for the flu puts you at unnecessary risk of side effects. Also, this may contribute to you being resistant to antibiotics in the future.
Myth #8: Healthy people don’t die from the flu
Your risk of severe complications from the flu is higher if you have an underlying health condition. But even strong, healthy people can become very ill. Many healthy adults and children are among the thousands of Americans who die each year due to flu-related complications.
Myth #9: There’s no point in getting a flu shot after Thanksgiving
Flu vaccines are helpful as long as viruses are out there. And flu seasons sometimes last into April. The CDC advises people to become vaccinated by the end of October (it takes about two weeks for the vaccine to fully take effect). The longer you wait, the more susceptible you become. But even a late vaccination can help more than no vaccination at all.
Myth #10: I never get the flu so I don’t need to be vaccinated
Just because you’ve been fortunate in the past doesn’t mean you’ll be so this year. As health author Tara Haelle puts it, “Millions of people have never gotten into car accidents. They still wear seat belts and carry insurance.”
Want more local health news, wellness tips, recipes, and more? Subscribe to the Kaiser Permanente Washington newsletter.