Flu Shot Myths Put Everyone At Risk

Sharon Reed, MD

Sharon Reed, MD

Despite widespread evidence that flu shots help protect people from getting sick, many still refuse to roll up their sleeves.

If you’re one of those who question whether flu vaccines really work, chances are you’ve heard some of the widespread myths that seem to start circulating every fall.

Sharon Budniak Reed, MD, a board-certified internal medicine and geriatric medicine physician, has heard them all.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” Reed said. “Without a flu shot, you can put yourself and others at risk. The flu causes a lot of deaths. People tend to forget that.”

Recent studies show that getting a flu shot can reduce your risk of illness up to 60 percent, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although infants under the age of 6 months are too young to get a flu shot, they are protected for the first four months of their life if their mother was vaccinated. Flu vaccination helps protect women during and after pregnancy.

Everyone over the age of 6 months should get a flu shot every year, according to federal health recommendations. Yet many people don’t. Last November, only 40 percent of eligible people had received their flu shot, according to the CDC.

Flu shots do not cause the flu.

Perhaps the most common myth Reed hears from patients is that the flu vaccine causes the flu.

“It’s simply not true,” she said.

The vaccine contains viruses that have been inactivated, which means they’re not infectious. It can cause mild, short-lasting side effects, she said, but it doesn’t give you the flu. Minor side effects include a low-grade fever, aches and soreness on your arm from the shot.

To understand why some might believe this myth, you need to know how the flu vaccine works.

It takes about two weeks after getting your flu shot for your body to develop enough antibodies to protect you. So, should you get the flu after getting your vaccine, you were likely infected before or during that two-week window.

Another possibility: it’s not the flu. It’s a cold. Many people confuse respiratory viruses with influenza because they cause similar symptoms.

Flu shots work.

Another myth Reed hears often is that flu shots don’t work.

The truth is that you can still get the flu even though you had a flu shot. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get one.

How well the vaccine works can vary for each person. Older people, whose immune systems are not as strong, will not develop the same immunity as someone younger or healthier.

Another factor that affects the vaccine’s effectiveness is whether it closely matches the viruses circulating. The closer the match, the better the protection.

It’s important to know that even if the vaccine doesn’t closely match the viruses circulating, it still helps protect people. Should you become infected, your case of the flu will be milder because you had a flu shot.

In Reed’s family, everyone gets vaccinated in September. This way, they’re protected at the beginning of the flu season, which typically begins in October and peaks between December and February.

“Don’t wait until everybody is sick to get your flu shot,” Reed said.

It’s also particularly important for people over the age of 65 to get their flu shot. “They’re the ones who are at higher risk for being hospitalized.”