Flu Shot 101 – What You Need to Know

Flu season is here again, and besides a fever and runny nose, it can bring about the longtime controversy surrounding vaccines. In order to protect more human lives this year and to clarify some of the most common misconceptions surrounding the flu vaccine, the team at ConsumerSafety.org met with Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt Medical University. Below are answers to some of the most common queries surrounding the flu vaccine.

How is the Flu Vaccine Created?

Contrary to popular belief, the flu vaccine you receive this year is not the same vaccine that you received last year. The flu, also known as influenza, is a respiratory virus that is able to mutate and evolve over time. According to Dr. Schaffner, the virus can “change sometimes from year to year, perhaps every 2-3 years.” Therefore, the vaccine needs to change and evolve as well to keep people protected every year.

Because parts of the world experience flu season at the opposite time that we do, there are actually two vaccines developed every year – one for the northern hemisphere and one for the southern hemisphere. Each vaccine is developed nine months prior to flu season in a collaborative effort between the World Health Organization (WHO), the FDA, and the CDC. Based on WHO’s year-round global surveillance and influenza sampling, expert committees can “make recommendations about the creation of the vaccine” for each half of the world.

Who Needs the Flu Vaccine?

Everyone is at risk for the flu, and therefore with a few exceptions, everyone is recommended to get vaccinated. According to the CDC, everyone six months or older should receive an annual flu shot. Contrary to popular belief, this recommendation includes pregnant women, seniors, and children. It’s also important to note that not only is it safe for pregnant women, but the mother’s vaccine will actually protect the infant for six months after its birth.

In milder cases of the flu, a person experiences cold-like symptoms. However in its most severe form, the flu can lead to complications like pneumonia and even death. According to Dr. Schaffner, those most at risk for more serious complications include “people who are age 65 and older, and people who have underlying illnesses – heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, and the like who are immunosuppressed.” By receiving the vaccine, not only are you protecting yourself from this harmful virus, but you are also protecting those around you who might have a harder time fighting the flu.

Besides infants under the age of 6 months old, people who have Guillain-Barré syndrome, a very rare illness should NOT get the vaccination. Dr. Schaffner says that “if you’ve had Guillain-Barré  syndrome within 6 weeks of getting flu vaccine previously, you probably should not get flu vaccine this time.”

When Should a Person Get the Flu Vaccine?

Dr. Schaffner recommends anytime between September and November, and went on to explain that “vaccine interest on the part of providers and patients stops around Thanksgiving.” However, though our interest may wane, the peak season for flu outbreaks is often in February. So if it hits December or January and you still have not gotten your flu shot, Dr. Schaffner urges you to head to your nearest flu clinic. “RUN! Do not walk. Run and get your flu shot, because you can still get protection before the flu hits most seriously.”

Can the Flu Vaccine Give Someone the Flu?

No. After a flu shot, you may experience a headache, sore arm, redness, or a bump near the inoculation site, but the vaccine cannot give you the virus. As Dr. Schaffner explains, “The flu vaccine is not the complete virus. It’s broken up pieces of the virus. It can’t reconstitute itself and give you the flu.” The flu shot is administered during a season with high rates of colds and other airborne infections. Oftentimes when people get sick after a flu shot, they mistake a common cold for the flu by simple coincidence.

Is the Flu Vaccine Always Effective?

No, the flu shot is not 100% effective. In an age of money-back guarantees, many critics wonder why they should bother with a flu shot when they might still contract the virus. Dr. Schaffner argues that, “the protection effectiveness is measured as protection against the disease completely. What that doesn’t tell you is that you often get partial protection.” So you get a flu shot, and you still get the flu. The flu shot is still doing its part by lessening the severity of the virus. When it comes to a virus that takes tens of thousands of lives per year due to complications of high fever and pneumonia, Dr. Schaffner welcomes your complaints saying, “It’s wonderful that you’re here to complain. You didn’t die!” A mild case of the flu is better than a deadly case of the flu.

With the flu killing 30,000 to 40,000 individuals in the United States, it is imperative that more people recognize the dangers of the virus and the benefits of the vaccine. While the vaccine is not 100% effective, doctors and scientists work diligently every year to save as many people as possible from this deadly disease. You can make a difference too! Make the step towards health for you and your family this flu season and schedule your flu vaccination today.

Caitlin Hoff
Health and Safety Investigator with ConsumerSafety.org