It’s official, flu season is here! I have already personally diagnosed multiple cases of the flu and it’s not even November! The time has come for me to obnoxiously wear a mask every time I look at a patient’s throat (ain’t nobody got time for the flu). The time has also come for skeptics everywhere to refuse the flu shot because it “makes them sick.” There may be no greater pet peeve for me as a primary care physician because the flu shot is simply so poorly understood by so many people. So here is some REAL evidence-based info, presented in an outline (dorky, sorry) because that’s just how my brain works!
What is the flu?
A contagious illness caused by the influenza virus. Symptoms usually include fevers, body aches, significant fatigue and may include cough, difficulty breathing, runny nose, headache.
How does the flu shot work?
Each year, the influenza virus goes through major genetic changes which is why there are different strains of influenza each season. Each year, researchers determine which strains of the flu will be common and develop a vaccine containing inactivated versions of these viruses. When your body is exposed to these inactivated virus particles, it forms antibodies which offer protection against infection!
“I always get sick/the flu after the flu shot”
This is the #1 reason that my patients refuse the flu vaccine. This sentiment is ingrained in many many Americans! The fact is: the flu vaccine cannot cause the influenza virus, it’s completely impossible for dead virus particles to cause any kind of infection. If you get sick after the flu shot, one of the following things has happened:
- Fatigue and low grade fever for 1-2 days.
- This is a completely normal reaction and it means that you have a functioning immune system! Your body needs to mount an immune response against the dead influenza virus present in the vaccine in order to protect you when your body encounters the live virus in the environment.
- Cold symptoms (runny nose, cough, congestion, et.c)
- This is a coincidence and you were going to get that cold anyway! There is absolutely no way to catch a cold from the flu vaccine since it is inactivated. Also the influenza causes much more severe symptoms than a typical cold.
- The flu (fever, body aches, severe fatigue etc.)
- You were unlucky and were infected with a strain of the virus not covered by this year’s vaccine.
Why get vaccinated?
Influenza is a deadly disease! Each year hundreds of thousands of people are hospitalized for severe disease and tens of thousands die. Last year, over 100 children died of the flu in the US. Thousands more were hospitalized for complications. 80% of children who died from influenza were not vaccinated.
People at risk for more severe disease include:
- adults over 65
- chronic conditions such as COPD or asthma.
If you are young and healthy you may be asking: “does this apply to me?” The answer is yes! Even if you are not at risk for severe disease, the flu vaccine prevents transmission of the virus to other should you get infected. Bottom line: if you are around pregnant people, sick people, babies or the elderly you will protect them by vaccinating yourself. Of course, every person is autonomous and can decide wether or not to vaccinate The bottom line is: if you are around anyone susceptible to serious disease/hospitalization/death from the flu PLESE get vaccinated. I cannot emphasize this enough.