Debunking the Flu Shot

When flu season rolls around, do you make it a priority to go for a flu shot? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that all adults should get vaccinated annually, but only 52 percent of American adults actually received flu shots during the 2019-20 flu season.

Some people who don’t receive flu shots may mean to get vaccinated, then forget, but others purposely bypass it for any number of reasons. “There are many factors that contribute to the low flu vaccine rate,” says Amesh Adalja, MD, senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and a fellow of the Infectious Diseases Society of America. “Some people have misconceptions about getting the flu from the flu vaccine. Others believe it is ineffective. And still others minimize the risk of influenza.”

Every year, a certain number of people choose not to get vaccinated. “In my experience, there are several comments about declining the flu shot—that is, ‘I don’t get the flu, so I don’t need the shot,’ or ‘I had it once and it made me sick; never again,’ or ‘I read somewhere that the chemicals in the flu shot are extremely harmful,’” says Catherine Fisher, CRNP, a certified nurse practitioner with Mercy Family Care in Baltimore, who says that a conversation between a patient and healthcare provider may help to change someone’s mind about flu shots. “The key to all of this [is] not only giving information to patients, but also having the time and the willingness to answer questions that arise.”

Flu shot myths, debunked

Some people are wary of vaccinations of any type and may not like the idea of getting one annually. But immunity to the influenza virus wears off over time, so a yearly injection before the height of flu season helps to protect against illness or worse; about 22,000 Americans died of complications from the flu during the 2019-20 flu season.

Annual flu shots also help prevent disease because they can be changed to protect against strains of flu which are expected to be most rampant during each flu season, since different strains of the flu may circulate every year.

Sometimes people become infected with strains of the flu that weren’t targeted by the flu shot, but having had the vaccination still offers protection, leading to milder illness. “Even if the flu vaccine doesn’t protect them from becoming infected with influenza, it may protect them from becoming hospitalized with influenza,” Adalja says.

Vaccines typically contain inactivated influenza and don’t cause the flu, despite some opinions which have been shared via social media. However, they may cause mild symptoms. “Individuals do have reactions, producing symptoms like low-grade fever or mild fatigue,” Fisher says. “This response is a healthy reaction to the virus, indicating that the immune system has been activated and that your body recognizes an invading virus.”

Where to get a flu shot

Flu shots are available at doctor’s offices, pharmacies, walk-in clinics, and certain workplaces (although this may be less likely during the pandemic). The variety of venues offering protection against the flu should make it easier for you to fit a vaccination into your schedule.

Pharmacy-administered flu shots are often given on a walk-in basis, which may be more convenient for spontaneous people than waiting for doctor’s appointments. Some research shows that when people get their flu shots at nontraditional destinations like pharmacies, they’re more likely to get vaccinated before the end of October, which protects them for more of flu season.

“I think the pharmacies are a critical way of getting the flu vaccine into peoples’ arms,” Adalja says. Getting a flu shot at the doctor’s office will help your doctor keep your vaccination records updated, and you may have more time to ask questions or air concerns.

“I am not suggesting that education isn’t the role of pharmacist,” Fisher says, “but [doctors and other healthcare providers] are more likely to have an established care relationship with the patient, leading to ease of communication.”

Why you should get a flu shot during the pandemic

Getting a flu shot during the pandemic is as important, if not more important, than in years past, according to health experts. Because COVID-19 and the flu have many similar symptoms, lowering your chances of getting the flu may help you avoid the need for a COVID-19 test or quarantining at home. 

A flu shot could also help lower your chances of becoming ill with the flu and COVID-19 simultaneously, which may lead to serious illness. As a result of getting the shot, you may also avoid flu complications, which should keep you out of the hospital—where you might be exposed to COVID-19—at a time when COVID-19 cases are expected to rise. “Influenza [and] the novel coronavirus will be competing for the same hospital beds, ICU beds, and personal protective equipment,” Adalja says. “The less of a burden we can make influenza, the more room we’ll have to take care of coronavirus patients.”

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