As crisp fall weather rolls in, there’s another change in the air. The flu.
Influenza causes millions of illnesses in the United States every year. But annual flu shots and other types of flu vaccines also help prevent millions from getting sick – and that’s a fact.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (CDC), 2019-2020 flu vaccinations helped prevent an estimated 7.5 million illnesses – plus, thousands of hospitalizations and deaths.
But there’s a lot of misinformation floating around out there. New and scary flu shot myths spread quickly, just like the flu does.
That’s why I care so deeply about separating flu shot myth from flu shot fact. I think we can all agree keeping ourselves – and our community – healthy during the long flu season should be a top priority. And getting your flu vaccine is the best way to make that happen.
So, if you’re wondering, “Should I get the flu shot,” take a look below at some of the most common flu myths versus the facts you need to know.
Myth #1: You can get the flu from the flu shot and other flu vaccines
Fact: Many people have questions about the flu shot. Can you get the flu from the flu shot? Can the flu shot make you sick? Is the flu shot a live virus? Can live virus vaccines give you the flu? The answer for all of these is a definite no.
Since the flu vaccine’s first civilian use in 1945, flu vaccines have consisted of dead (or inactive) strains of influenza A and influenza B viruses. Because these flu strains are dead, it’s impossible for the shot to give you the flu. The nasal spray flu vaccine (like FluMist) is made with the weakened virus, but it also cannot give you the flu.
Both types of vaccines trigger your body’s immune response. Whether the vaccine contains inactive or weakened virus, your immune system recognizes it as an intruder and creates antibodies. This antibody creation is what can spur side effects, as well as get your body ready for a possible exposure to an active virus. And those side effects can easily be mistaken for early flu-like symptoms – but it’s really just a sign that the vaccine is working.
What flu shot side effects are possible?
The most common flu shot reactions include mild soreness, tenderness or a bit of swelling at the injection site. The most common FluMist side effect is a runny nose.
You may also run a small fever after a flu vaccine, or experience slight headaches or muscle aches. It’s very rare for someone to have a serious reaction to the flu vaccine (such as an allergic reaction), and there are effective treatments if this happens. So, if you feel sick after the flu shot, it’s likely that you are experiencing these normal reactions from the shot or have a different virus. The flu shot will not give you the flu.
On the other hand, many experience no flu shot reactions at all! Plus, a day or two of mild discomfort simply doesn’t compare to what you can experience with a full bout of the flu. Flu symptom onset is fast and often involves fever, chills, extreme fatigue, muscle aches and more for several days.
Influenza is serious and it can lead to complications. Older adults, kids and pregnant women are at a higher risk for the flu. But the flu vaccine protects you and those around you from around half of all flu viruses.
Are you “contagious” after a flu shot if you experience side effects?
No, you’re not sick so you’re not contagious. The mild symptoms you might experience after getting vaccinated are an immune response, not the signs of an illness.
What should you avoid after getting a flu shot?
There are no general restrictions after getting a flu shot.
Myth #2: You don’t need to get a flu shot every year
Fact: There are a lot of influenza viruses out there. And every year, the CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) perform rigorous testing to determine which strains of influenza pose the highest threats globally.
Based on their findings, the flu vaccine formula is updated to help provide the best protection against the strains scientists believe will be most common that year. This means that even if you had your shot last year, you’ll need one this year as well.
In addition, the flu shot is effective for one flu season. So even if scientists predicted the same strains would be most common in the next season, another flu shot would still be recommended.
Types of influenza strains
As we mentioned, there are a lot of influenza viruses out there. But there are four main categories of flu viruses, two of which are linked to seasonal epidemics.
Influenza A strains (H1N1, H3N2)
Influenza A strains are the most common flu linked to epidemics. There are dozens of subtypes, but a few have emerged in recent years as the most common culprits of sickness. For the 2022-2023 flu season, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made updates for the H3N2 strain. The H1N1 strain didn’t change this year.
Influenza B strains (B/Yamagata, B/Victoria)
There are fewer strains of influenza B viruses, but these are also linked to the seasonal flu. This year, the FDA made updates for B/Victoria strain. The B/Yamagata strain is the same as last year.
Influenza C strains
Influenza C is linked to mild respiratory illness and is generally not the cause of severe flu cases or epidemics.
Influenza D strains
Influenza D strains are only known to affect cattle, and do not cause illness among humans.
Myth #3: Waiting until winter for a flu shot is safer
Fact: While peak flu season is between December and February, you can get sick as early as October. Some believe that getting vaccinated later will protect them longer, which is simply false. This also leaves you exposed for weeks, or months while the virus is floating around.
Also, an annual flu shot helps your body build immunityfor the types of influenza viruses that research indicates will be the most common that season. But immunity isn’t built as soon as you get the shot.
How long does it take for the flu shot to work?
Two weeks – which is another reason to schedule your flu shot early.
When is the best time to get a flu shot?
The CDC recommends everyone 6 months old and older get vaccinated by the end of October. This will give you the best protection for the entire flu season. Getting a vaccine as soon as it’s available in September may be especially important for the following people:
- Pregnant people – People who are pregnant, particularly those in their third trimester of pregnancy should receive a flu shot as soon as the vaccine becomes available.
- Children 6 months through 8 years old getting their first flu vaccine – When young children get their first flu vaccine, they’ll need two doses given at least four weeks apart.
Is it ever too late to get a flu shot?
If it’s January and you’re wondering, “Should I get the flu shot?” The answer is yes. It’s still worth getting a flu shot, even if it’s January, February or even March. Influenza season can often last well into May. Late protection is better than no protection at all!
Myth #4: I don’t need the vaccine, I never get the flu
Fact: Unfortunately, a flu-free history does not guarantee a flu-free future. Flu strains evolve and change over time, which means you are at risk every year you avoid getting vaccinated. In addition, when you skip your shot, you can still carry and pass flu germs to others.
Influenza symptoms can leave us stuck in bed for days using up valuable vacation time. I always ask patients, why not save up those days for a sunny vacation instead?
Myth #5: Flu shots don’t work
Fact: The flu vaccine can significantly reduce your risk of catching the flu. And if you get a flu shot and still get the flu, the vaccine helps reduce your risk of severe illness and hospitalization.
How effective is the flu vaccine?
In previous years, when the vaccine matched circulating strains, the CDC reports that getting vaccinated reduced the chance of catching the flu by up to 60%.
Flu vaccination also significantly reduces the risk of flu-related hospitalization for the elderly, working age adults, and especially among children. A 2014 study showed that the flu vaccine reduced children’s risks of flu-related pediatric intensive care unit admissions by 74%. And the vaccine could even be a life-saver – a 2017 study showed that flu vaccinations reduce a child’s risks of dying from the flu.
Flu shots are important for pregnant women, too. Since pregnancy affects your immune system, it can make you more susceptible to the flu. Getting a flu shot while you’re pregnant is safe for both mom and baby. Plus, it can help protect the baby after they’re born until they can have their first flu shot.
When more people choose to vaccinate, doctors and CDC researchers are better equipped to pinpoint flu strains, keep rates of hospitalization down, and keep you and your family protected. Also, the science of vaccinations improves every year, and so do your odds of staying healthy with a flu shot.
Myth #6: Catching the flu builds your immunity more than the vaccine
Fact: Having heard that the flu shot doesn’t always work, some are led to believe that getting the flu will boost your immunity more than the flu shot.
There’s no truth to this claim. And sitting around waiting for the flu to strike is certainly not a good idea.
The flu can get serious fast, especially in children and older adults. But it also carries risks of complications for healthy people. Getting vaccinated is much safer and comes with the same immunity benefits. And no, the flu shot doesn’t weaken your immune system. Rather, it’s the opposite. The immune response the flu shot triggers helps get your body ready if you’re exposed to the active virus. Read more on how to boost your immune system.
While protecting you, the flu shot also protects loved ones around you from getting sick. Once your body builds immunity – which takes two weeks – you can’t pass flu germs to anyone else. Now that’s something you can feel good about.
Be a flu fighter by getting your annual flu vaccine
There are a lot of reasons to get a flu vaccine. It’s fast. It’s easy. It’s almost always free. But maybe one of the most important reasons is that it can significantly reduce your risk of getting the flu and passing it to others. And this helps you, your family and community stay healthy, happy and productive.
We offer flu vaccine appointments at many locations in Minnesota and western Wisconsin. Flu shots are available for people 6 months old and older. The FluMist is an option for people 2 through 49 years old who don’t have contraindications. If you’d prefer the FluMist vaccine for you or your child, just let us know when making the appointment.