Q&A: Should I get the flu vaccine?

Lily Moran
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Posted: Nov 10, 2018 9:00 AM

Every year as the leaves turn and flutter to the ground, tissues start vanishing from the boxes. Colds and flus have already begun spreading in many homes and communities.

These germs spread fast, prompting the medical community to sound the alarm on the importance of getting a flu shot. And rightfully so. Last winter was the deadliest on record with about 80,000 flu-related deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Flu vaccines are intended to drive these numbers down, but there is a lot of information, misinformation and apprehension about getting one. I want to drill down to the heart of the matter by answering some FAQs patients often ask their doctors.

What’s Actually in a Flu Vaccine?

The primary ingredients of a flu vaccine are trace elements of the very viruses that it intends to protect you from. This activates a specialized immune response to the flu – creating and deploying antibodies to fight specific strains of flu viruses that are going around each year. In effect, it’s a trial run in the event that you are exposed to flu viruses so that your immune system already knows how to fight them.

Each year, the contents of the flu vaccine change in an attempt to match the flu viruses that will circulate that coming flu season. And those viruses change from year to year. So, best case scenario, you’re getting a vaccine based on probability and some very educated guesswork.

The CDC reported that last year’s vaccine was only 25% effective against the strains responsible for almost 70% of flu cases. Other years the vaccine worked better. And we won’t know how effective this year’s vaccine will be until the flu season is in full force.

What are the Pros of Getting a Flu Vaccine?

The flu vaccine is generally safe for most people but there are some reasons to think twice about getting one (more on this later). If you do catch the flu, your symptoms are likely to be shorter in length and less severe because your body is better equipped to fight the virus.

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Studies show that getting the vaccine leads to a lower risk of flu-related complications for specific groups of people – older adults, pregnant women, and people with chronic conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and lung diseases.

But ultimately, unless there’s a specific ingredient you’re allergic to, or a medical condition that makes the vaccine dangerous, it’s a good idea to get one. Flus are highly contagious and powerful enough to shut you down for days – sometimes weeks. Flu vaccines are the best way to protect yourself from it, which makes you less likely to spread it. And if more people get the vaccine, we all are less likely to catch it and spread it.

What are the Cons of Getting a Flu Vaccine?

The flu vaccine is not for everyone. The shot form of the vaccine contains gelatin, antibiotics, and eggs, which can trigger allergic reactions in people sensitive to them. If you had a severe allergic reaction to a previous flu vaccine, it might not be a good idea to get another one this year.

Also, it’s not recommended that you get a flu vaccine if you aren’t feeling completely healthy at the time or if you have had Guillain-Barré Syndrome.

I should note that flu shots also contain very small amounts of formaldehyde, aluminum salts, and thimerosal (a natural form of mercury). The role and effects of these ingredients are often misunderstood but the general medical consensus is that the type and amount of each of them do not pose a threat to your health.

How Do I Know if Getting One is Best for Me?

Ultimately, that is a question best answered by your doctor because he or she knows your health history. I encourage you to have that conversation sooner than later because flu season has already begun and the virus is already spreading via handshakes, close conversations, and dozens of other innocent ways.

References

Interim Estimates of 2017–18 Seasonal Influenza Vaccine Effectiveness — United States, February 2018.

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