No one looks forward to getting stuck with a needle at the doctor’s office. But the flu vaccination is one shot that everyone should get each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This is because influenza is one of the most common and most deadly viruses spread throughout the fall and winter months. About 200,000 people are hospitalized and 36,000 people die each year from flu-related complications.
Generally speaking, symptoms of the flu are worse than those of the common cold and may include high fever, headache, coughing, weakness and muscle aches. Even in mild cases, the flu can leave sufferers bedridden for several days.
The CDC recommends that everyone age 2 and up get vaccinated each year, but annual shots are especially important for age groups 2 to 18 and 65 and older, and people with compromised immune systems. In addition to the flu shot, a nasal spray vaccine is available for people under 50. Unlike the shot, two doses of the nasal spray are required for sufficient protection against the virus.
Still, many myths prevent people from getting vaccinated each year. Here are five of the most common ones:
1. I’m healthy, I don’t need to get vaccinated. It’s true that most healthy people are not at risk for the most severe flu-related complications, but the people around them may be.
Anyone who has regular contact with very young or elderly people, or people with weakened immune systems, should be vaccinated to ensure they don’t get sick and spread the flu virus to those who may not be able to fight off its deadly effects, said Dr. Anthony Fiore, a medical epidemiologist with the Influenza Division of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“You should get it just because you don’t want to get sick,” he said. “Even if you get a mild case, you’re still going to have a high fever and miss work, possibly infect others. It’s not an expensive way to avoid a lot of misery.”
2. The flu vaccination might give me the flu. This is a myth, said Dr. Su Wang, assistant director of medical affairs for the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center in New York City.
The flu shot contains three strains of inactive flu virus. Because the virus is dead, it cannot reproduce in the body, but it can stimulate the body to build immunity to the virus. Similar to the chickenpox vaccine, the nasal spray vaccination, called FluMist, contains a weakened live virus. The weakened virus is not potent enough to sicken the body, but will help it develop antibodies that protect against the flu.
“I hear it over and over again, it’s going to make me sick,” Wang said during a recent roundtable discussion on influenza hosted by the CDC. “We have to keep emphasizing to people that it doesn’t make you sick. I think that’s one of the most important things you can do.”
3. I got vaccinated last year and still got sick. Many times people confuse a cold with the flu. Although a fever always accompanies the flu, it rarely accompanies a cold. Likewise, the sneezing and stuffy nose that always seem to accompany a cold are not symptoms of the flu. Unfortunately, the flu vaccination does not protect against a cold, which may be bothersome but is rarely fatal.
4. It’s December, you need to get vaccinated in September or October. The flu may surface in United States as early as September, but it sticks around through March, which means that it’s too late to get a flu shot only when the season is over.
“A lot of people get busy with the holidays and forget about it,” Dr. Tyra Bryant-Stevens, founder and director of the Community Asthma Prevention Program at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said during the roundtable discussion. “But flu season peaks around February, so you can get [vaccinated] after the holidays, through February and even in March.”
5. Sometimes the vaccination doesn't work. I read that people got vaccinated last year and still got the flu. Last year’s flu vaccine was 44 percent effective in preventing the flu in the general population and about 54 percent effective in preventing the flu in healthy people, according to Fiore. In a good year, the vaccine is about 70-90 percent effective in preventing the flu in the general population.
Last year’s vaccine failed to cover two strains of the virus that surfaced late in the season. But even if the vaccination doesn’t prevent someone from getting the flu, it still prevents the severity of the illness overall, Fiore said.
“We didn’t hit it right on the spot, but getting it still wasn’t a waste of time,” he said. “It’s still undoubtedly the best way to prevent flu-related illness and death.”