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14 Myths and Misconceptions About the Flu Vaccine

From US News & World Report

By Ruben Castaneda, Staff Writer 

The flu vaccine is surrounded by myths and misconceptions.

In his more than 20 years working as a certified physician assistant, Eric Amoh has heard many patients recite a multitude of myths about the flu vaccine. Among the misconceptions: The vaccine can give you the flu, you don’t need it if you never get sick and pregnant women should avoid getting a flu shot because it could harm them or their unborn baby. False, false and false. “There are multiple myths regarding the flu vaccine that have been repeatedly debunked on a scientific basis. These myths are just that – myths – and should not discourage anyone from getting safely vaccinated against a deadly disease,” says Amoh, a clinical associate professor of the physician assistant program at the College of Health Professions at Pace University in Pleasantville, New York. Failing to get a flu shot could be deadly. During the 2017-18 flu season, 80,000 people in the U.S. died of influenza and 900,000 people were hospitalized, according to preliminary estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “These were the highest numbers we’ve seen in more than a decade,” says Kristen Nordlund, a CDC spokesperson. Here are 14 myths and misconceptions about the flu shot.

1. The flu shot can give you the flu.

The viruses in most versions of the flu shot are killed, and are therefore inactive and can’t make you sick if you get the influenza vaccine, says Papatya Tankut, vice president of pharmacy affairs for CVS Health. (There is one flu vaccine, designed for people with egg allergies, that’s made without influenza viruses). The flu shot can cause minor side effects, such as soreness, redness or swelling on the area of the arm where the injection is made, a low-grade fever and minor aches that may last one to two days. “Almost all people who receive the influenza vaccine have no serious problems as a result of receiving it,” Tankut says.

2. It’s too early or too late to get the vaccine.

The CDC recommends getting the flu shot as soon as it’s available, preferably before October. The vaccine is typically widely available at pharmacies, community health centers and other locations in September, and you can also ask your health care provider for it. But you shouldn’t think that it’s ever too early or too late to get the flu vaccine, says Dr. Daniel McGee, a pediatric hospitalist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Even if you’ve put off the shot, January is still not too late to get it if influenza is active in your community. Getting it late is better than not getting it at all. “Bottom line – get vaccinated,” McGee says.

3. The flu vaccine takes effect immediately.

It takes two weeks for the vaccine to take effect for both children and adults, says Dr. Jasjit Singh, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and medical director of infection prevention and control at CHOC Children’s, a pediatric hospital network in Orange County, California. “Very often, people get vaccinated because someone they know has the flu,” Singh says. “It takes two weeks for the vaccine to take effect, so if your child has been exposed to the flu in that time period, [he or she] can still get sick.” The same holds true for adults.

4. Flu shots are only for kids and the elderly.

People of all ages (except for infants less than 6 months old) can benefit from the influenza vaccine, says Dr. Carl Fichtenbaum, a professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. There’s another reason younger and middle-aged people should get the flu vaccine: It’s collectively good for the community. “[The] influenza vaccine works best when the entire community is vaccinated,” Fichtenbaum says. Research suggests that when healthy adults get vaccinated, small children and older individuals are more protected, he says. “Think of it this way: If fewer people get the flu, then less folks will come in contact with the grandchildren or grandparents who are most at risk of getting complications from influenza infections. So, flu shots are for everyone.”

5. Young adults and middle-age people can’t die from the flu and don’t need the vaccine.

The idea that only kids and older people can die from or suffer serious complications from the flu is widespread but mistaken, says Dr. Dawne Kort, an attending physician at CityMD, an urgent care provider with more than 100 locations in the New York City area. “The flu affects everyone differently and can be unpredictable,” she says. People who have respiratory problems, lung disease, heart disease and kidney disorders can all have complications from the flu that can lead to fatalities, she says. The flu can be particularly dangerous for adults over age 50 living with chronic health conditions like diabetes and for pregnant women, says Dr. Cedric Rutland, a volunteer medical spokesperson for the American Lung Association. “The flu isn’t just a bad cold,” Rutland says. “It can be dangerous, especially for people who are at increased risk of flu-related infection and complications. More than 140,000 hospitalizations have resulted from the flu annually since 2010. Getting your flu shot is an easy way to help avoid serious complications.”

6. I can only get the flu from a contagious person.

Flu germs can last up to 24 hours, depending on the surface they’re on, says Dr. David Shih, executive vice president of strategy, health and innovation at CityMD. “The harder the surface, the longer the germs can last,” he says. “If you think about the surfaces you touch when you’re out and about – the grocery cart, check-out counters, officer copier machine and ATM buttons – it’s pretty overwhelming. People tend not to think about this – the flu can spread silently.”

7. I got the flu vaccine and still got the flu, so it doesn’t work.

Though many people seem to get the flu even after getting a flu shot, that doesn’t mean the vaccine doesn’t work, says Dr. Michael L. Chang, an infectious disease pediatrician at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston. Even if the vaccination doesn’t completely stop you from getting the flu, it can significantly reduce the severity of the infection,” Chang says. “That could save you from having to see a doctor, visit an emergency room, take a week off work or, even worse, be hospitalized.”

8. Nasal sprays are an effective alternative to the standard flu shot.

While nasal flu sprays can be an attractive alternative to the needle-averse, they aren’t for everyone, says Dr. Kumar Dharmarajan, chief scientific officer at Clover Health, a San Francisco-based startup that uses data analysis and preventive care to improve health insurance for seniors. “In fact, these vaccines are only recommended for healthy individuals ages 2 through 49,” he says. The CDC recommends that the nasal flu vaccine be avoided by children under age 2; adults age 50 and older; pregnant women; people with weakened immune systems and patients with underlying medical records that can increase the risk of flu-related complications. This includes those with diabetes, lung disease, heart disease and kidney disease. The nasal spray vaccine performed so poorly from 2013 to 2016 that the CDC stopped recommending it for the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 flu seasons. For the 2018-19 season, the CDC again recommends it for people ages 2 to 49. It’s not and never has been recommended for pregnant women. “The 2018-2019 flu season will serve as another reference point on the spray’s effectiveness compared to the injection,” Dharmarajan says. “But, as always, check with your health care provider to make sure whatever vaccine you choose is the best option for you.”

9. You don’t need to get the flu shot every year.

Last year’s flu shot will not protect you from this year’s flu strains, Dharmarajan says. “The flu shot is different each year depending upon the specific strains of the flu that are expected to spread,” he says. “This year’s flu shot will help your body build up protection against several strains of the virus unique to the 2018-2019 season.” For your best protection against the flu each year, get the flu shot at the start of influenza season to allow your body’s immune system the time it needs to build up protective antibodies against the virus.

10. All flu shots are equal.

Many people believe where and how a flu shot is administered doesn’t matter, but it can impact the quality and therefore your chances of catching the virus, says Jerilin Kenney, vice president/general manager of life sciences and health care at Phononic, a company that makes medical grade solid-state refrigerators used by health care providers. Be sure you get a flu shot from a provider that has a strong temperature monitoring program to store the vaccine. “First and foremost, look around the clinic, office or pharmacy at which you are receiving your flu shot to see what kind of refrigeration systems are being used,” Kenney says. “If it looks like something not designed for medical use, [ask about it],” Kenney says. “Also look at the functions on the refrigerator. Does it have a temperature display or are they tracking this manually with pen and paper? Automated technology allows vaccines to be stored at an optimal temperature. If you’re unsure how the temperature is being tracked, ask.” An array of providers can administer an effective flu vaccine – from your doctor’s office to a clinic or local pharmacy. The most important thing is to make sure the provider has invested in modern storage solutions for vaccines and medications, Kenney advises.

11. Pregnant women shouldn’t get the flu vaccine.

Some people believe pregnant women shouldn’t get the flu vaccine because they think it could be harmful to the fetus, leading to developmental issues like a low birth weight or to a miscarriage, says Dr. Randy Bergen, the clinical lead for the flu vaccine program for Kaiser Permanente in Northern California. On the contrary, “getting a flu shot is especially important if you’re pregnant,” he says. “Because of pregnancy-related changes in the immune system, heart and lungs, women who are expecting a child and women who just delivered [within two weeks] are more likely to get sicker from flu and suffer flu-related complications, such as hospitalization. Flu also may be harmful to a fetus.” Research suggests the flu vaccine is not only safe for expectant moms and their developing babies, but also effective, Bergen says. Pregnant women who get a flu shot get sick less frequently with influenza than those who don’t get the vaccine, he says.

12. If you get the flu, you can’t get the flu again during that flu season.

Different strains of the flu circulate each season, so don’t assume that if you’ve already had the flu, you won’t get it again, Tankut says. Yes, it’s possible to get the flu twice in one flu season. If you already had the flu this season, you should still make it a priority to receive the flu shot.

13. If you’re allergic to eggs, you can’t get the flu shot.

Most flu vaccines, including shots and nasal sprays, are made using egg-based technology and contain a small amount of egg proteins. This fact has led to the misconception that people with egg allergies shouldn’t get the flu vaccine. However, there are specific vaccines that are made “egg free,” Fichtenbaum says. If you have an egg allergy, ask your health care provider about the availability of an egg-free flu vaccine.

14. I never get the flu, so I don’t need a flu vaccination.

You might have a good history, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get the flu, Bergen says. “The flu shot is considered the best protection against the flu,” he says. “While vaccine effectiveness can vary from year to year, recent studies show that flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40 percent and 60 percent among the overall population during seasons when the flu vaccine protects against the season’s predominant strains.” The CDC has found that there was a 60 percent reduction in doctor visits during a particular flu season among those who were vaccinated.

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