Do You Really Need A Flu Shot?

It’s May, the Justin Timberlake memes have come and gone, days are getting longer, and I’m in bed with the flu. I’m not alone. The 2018-19 flu season has been the longest in five years thanks to a two-wave infection. Instead of a single wave of influenza striking the nation, this year the country was lucky enough to get two, prolonging the season and exposing more people to what I can best describe as walking death.

While I’m confined to a sick room, I thought I’d take some time to go over flu vaccines and dispel some common myths. In the interest of honesty, I should say that I have a lot of strong opinions on vaccines. I tend to believe the choice not to vaccinate comes at an intersection of extreme privilege and extreme stupidity. 

This post isn’t about vaccines in general. It’s just about the flu shot. I’ve found that even parents who support vaccines aren’t sure about flu vaccines. There’s no cause for alarm though.

First thing’s first: the flu shot does NOT give you the flu. There are thousands of anecdotes about that time Aunt Janice* got a flu shot and that year she had the worst flu of her life. While poor Aunt Janice may have had a bad case of the flu that year she didn’t get it from the vaccine.

Flu vaccines are made from either inactivated (dead) or attenuated (weakened) forms of the flu virus. These aren’t able to get you sick. What they can do is trigger an immune response to get your body to produce antibodies against the flu. It takes about two weeks for your body to produce antibodies after the shot. Antibodies are what will fight off the infection. 

So why would Aunt Janice still get the flu after getting the flu shot? There are a lot of reasons. For one, she might have already been infected with the flu at the time of the vaccination. She may also have been exposed to the flu sometime before the antibodies had a chance to build up.

Most likely though, Aunt Janice caught a different strain of the flu than what was covered by the flu shot. Every year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention make an educated guess as to what they think will be the most common three to four strains of the flu are to strike that season. The vaccine for that season is effective against the strains they picked. They don’t always pick right, and even if they do, poor Aunt Janice can still get a different strain.

All that being said, it’s still usually a good idea to get the flu shot. There’s evidence that even if you get the flu after the vaccine, the vaccine can help reduce the length and severity of the flu. I did get my flu shot this year and still managed to catch the flu. I don’t know if getting Tamiflu in time has lessened the severity for me or if my flu shot helped, but either way, this flu, while shitty, hasn’t been as bad as the last time I got the flu in 2010.

Most people probably should get a flu shot. The CDC recommends everyone over six months old get one annually. It might not seem like a big deal, but the flu can be a major illness. This season alone upwards of 41 million people have had the flu, with over half a million hospitalizations and 57,000 deaths from flu complications. 91 children have died from the flu. The vaccine greatly reduces the odds of childhood death from the flu. To me, that’s reason enough.

There are still some people who may not want to get a flu vaccine for various reasons such as allergies or specific medical conditions. The flu vaccine is usually made with eggs, so people with an egg allergy need to talk to their healthcare providers to get a version that doesn’t use eggs. If you have specific concerns, as always, speak with your healthcare provider.

*No Aunt Janices were harmed during the writing of this blog. I do not actually have an Aunt Janice.

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