It’s that time of year when the flu starts circulating and with it, myths about the virus and the vaccines. Don’t fall prey to the infection or the misinformation. Here are some important facts about the flu and the flu shot to keep you healthy this flu season.
Flu is deadly.
Thousands of Americans die from the flu each year. On average, approximately 30,000 die from the flu in a typical flu season and 200,000 are hospitalized. Some years are worse than others, especially if a nasty strain is circulating or if the flu vaccine that year wasn’t a particularly effective one. Symptoms of the flu sound similar to a cold and include a sore throat, cough and fever, but unlike the common cold, flu can be deadly. Pregnant women, children and older adults are particularly at risk of serious complications of the infection, including death.
Antibiotics do not cure the flu.
Antibiotics work against bacteria, and the flu is caused by a virus. There are antiviral medications that can treat flu. They lessen symptoms and shorten the amount of time that you feel sick. The same medications can be used to prevent the flu but are usually given to kids, older adults, pregnant women and people with health problems who are at high risk of complications from the flu. If antiviral medications are not taken properly, the flu virus can become resistant to them.
Not everyone infected with the flu has symptoms.
A third of people with the flu virus won’t have any symptoms. That means you can feel perfectly fine while carrying the virus in your body. It also means you can spread an infection that you don’t know you have. While it’s possible that a person without symptoms can spread the flu, most infections are spread by people who have symptoms. That’s why it’s important to stay home from work or school when you feel sick with the flu. You can spread the virus from the first day you feel sick and for up to seven days after that. Children and people with weak immune systems can spread the infection for longer than a week.
You need to get the flu shot every year.
Unlike the tetanus shot, which you need to get every 10 years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a yearly flu vaccine for everyone 6 months and older. The reason one shot won’t protect you for multiple flu seasons is because the virus mutates. Each year, scientists make a new vaccine to protect against the latest strains. They do it by looking at which strains made people sick in the Southern Hemisphere and predicting what will arrive on our shores. This guessing game doesn’t always work out well because the virus can change again or different strains can affect different regions. Some years the flu shot confers little protection against the virus, so it’s worth talking to your doctor about your options.
The flu vaccine does not cause flu.
This is definitely not true since flu shots given with a needle are made using either inactivated flu viruses or a protein taken from the flu. Neither of these are infectious. The nasal flu spray contains a weak version of the flu virus that does not cause flu. The nasal flu spray can be used by people ages 2 to 49 who are healthy and not pregnant. The CDC is not recommending the nasal flu spray this flu season.
So why did I get sick after I got the flu shot?
You might get sick because the time of year the shot is available is the same time of year that respiratory viruses are circulating. Also, the flu shot protects against a few strains — but not every strain — of flu. Some years scientists do a bad job of predicting what strains of flu will circulate, and they design a vaccine that doesn’t offer as much protection as we’d like.
Does the nasal flu vaccine work? Not this year.
The answer to this question will vary year by year since the flu virus mutates and new vaccines are designed each flu season. This year, experts say the injected flu vaccine works better than the nasal flu spray although they’re not sure why the nasal version isn’t doing its job.
The flu shot very rarely causes serious side effects.
One in a million doses of the flu vaccine causes a severe allergic reaction. Signs include hives, wheezing and difficulty breathing. You should call 911 immediately if you suffer any of those symptoms. For most people the flu shot causes a few minutes of discomfort; some experience soreness in the area where you got poked. It can also cause nausea and headache and a sore throat. These are generally mild symptoms that go away on their own.
The flu shot does not give you immediate protection against the flu.
It takes about two weeks for your body to build up protection against the flu after you get vaccinated. At that point, your chance of getting flu is about 60 percent lower than if you didn’t get the flu shot. If you do get the flu, you’re likely to have a milder and shorter illness if you were vaccinated.
People with egg allergies can safely get the flu shot.
Some flu vaccines are made using chicken eggs and can contain a small amount of egg protein. But studies have shown that these vaccines are safe for people with egg allergies. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends flu vaccines for children with egg allergies, and the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology say that no special precautions are needed when giving the flu shot to people with even severe egg allergies.
Older adults have a range of flu shot options.
People over the age of 65 are at high risk for serious complications of the flu, and because of their weaker immune systems, regular flu shots don’t work as well. There are a few different options for older adults. One is a shot that contains four times the usual anti-flu component, and another option includes a chemical that boosts the immune system’s response to the vaccine.