Lowering your risk is actually pretty simple.
Every fall, public health officials plead with Americans to get the flu shot. And every fall, the majority of people ignore those pleas. Since 2010, the number of adults who’ve opted for the flu vaccine has hovered around 40 percent, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In turn, influenza sickens millions of Americans each year. During the 2017 – 2018 flu season, about 49 million people caught the virus. Hundreds of thousands of them were hospitalized and, per the CDC, more than 79,000 died. Preventing much of this suffering would be possible if more people got the flu vaccine each year.
Getting vaccinated isn’t just about protecting yourself
Most people who pass on the flu vaccine probably assume this is a “personal choice”—a decision that will affect them and no one else. However, doctors say that their choice to skip a flu shot could inadvertently lead to another person’s illness, hospitalization, or death.
“Nothing is more important than the influenza vaccine, which should be given to everyone older than six months of age,” says William Norcross, MD, a professor of family medicine at the University of California, San Diego.
By getting the shot, you not only lower your risk of developing a severe case of the flu, but you also reduce the odds that you’ll spread the flu to someone who may be especially vulnerable to the virus, including young children, pregnant women, anyone with a serious chronic disease, and adults over 50. (For these at-risk groups, a flu shot is especially important, the CDC warns.)
When you have the flu, your saliva and mucus teem with millions of highly infectious virus particles, Dr. Norcross explains. Cough into your hand or rub your nose, and you’ve just weaponized those parts of your body. Any handrails or shopping cart handles you touch may be grasped next by a newborn’s mother, or by the caregiver of someone battling cancer.
Of course, getting a flu shot will also protect you from the virus. That’s true even during those years when experts misjudge the varieties of flu going around.
How effective is the flu shot anyway?
There are two main types of influenza virus that humans can contract: influenza A and influenza B, says Kyle Sue, MD, a clinical assistant professor of family medicine at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada. Each of these types can be further broken down into different influenza “strains,” he says. Each year, the public health experts who craft the flu vaccine do their best to hypothesize which of these strains will be most common during the coming winter.
Sometimes they guess right, but other years they guess wrong. When they hit the nail on the head—meaning they correctly anticipate which strains of the flu will be going around—the vaccine can lower your risk of getting sick by up to 60 percent.
When they’re wrong, a flu shot may not help you dodge the virus entirely, but it could still help reduce the duration and severity of your illness. A 2015 study found people who got the flu shot had significant protection against a high fever or muscle aches and pains. They also tended to have milder respiratory symptoms than those who were not vaccinated.
The flu shot also reduces the risk you’ll end up in the hospital or intensive care unit (ICU) due to a nasty case of the flu, CDC research shows. “Even partial effectiveness is better than zero,” Dr. Sue says.
Flu shot risks: myth vs. fact
If these benefits don’t seem to outweigh the risks you’ve heard people associate with the flu vaccine, understand that most of what you’ve been told is probably not true.
Let’s start with the idea that you can get the flu from a flu shot. According to the CDC, this is completely false. “No matter what some people may say, the influenza virus is a killed virus and cannot cause influenza,” Dr. Norcross says. He says this myth persists for two main reasons:
➡️ It takes about two weeks for your body to develop flu-blocking antibodies in response to the vaccine. So if you come into contact with the flu during that time, the shot won’t do you any good.
➡️ Cold season tends to overlap with flu season, and the flu shot offers no protection against the common cold. Considering how prevalent colds and flu are, there’s a good chance that a significant number of people will develop one or the other right after getting a flu shot, the CDC confirms. While many of these people may blame the shot for their illness—and say so to their friends and family—the flu vaccine had nothing to do with it.
Another myth is that people with egg allergies need an egg-free vaccination or should skip getting vaccinated altogether. Some common forms of the flu vaccine are grown in eggs, which at one time was thought to be a concern for people with egg allergies. However, a 2017 study found that the flu vaccine is actually safe for this group. In light of this new finding, the CDC published updated guidelines indicating that for this population, “no special precautions are required.”
On the other hand, it is true that the flu shot can make a person’s arm sore for a day, Dr. Sue says. In rare cases, a person’s immune system may also react to the vaccine. This could lead to headaches, sore throats, or fevers, which may last for a day or two, according to the CDC. But again, these side effects are uncommon.
The bottom line: The benefits of getting a flu shot far outweigh the minimal risk of an adverse reaction. If you’re worried about any of these side effects, talk to your doctor about them. But don’t skip your flu shot. The flu vaccine “clearly saves lives and diminishes suffering,” Dr. Norcross says.