Like, no, you can't get the flu from the vaccine.
That dreaded time of year is upon us. Influenza viruses, which cause the flu, have begun to make the rounds. “Flu season is just getting started,” William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells SELF. “It hasn’t really taken off yet, but it’s coming.”
Any sense of foreboding you may have is warranted: “While the numbers vary, in the United States, millions of people are sickened, hundreds of thousands are hospitalized, and thousands or tens of thousands of people die from flu every year,” says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It’s key to bone up on flu knowledge — and get the vaccine. But myths abound about how to protect yourself. Here, experts explain what you need to know.
1. The flu is common, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be dangerous (or deadly).
With symptoms like a fever or feeling feverish, chills, coughing, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, and fatigue, the flu sounds miserable, but not deadly. Even though some people rebound from it within a few weeks, for others, getting the flu can indeed be fatal, Martin Hirsch, M.D., editor at UpToDate, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, professor of infectious disease and immunology at the Harvard School of Public Health, and senior physician in infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, tells SELF.
“The flu can cause death, particularly in individuals under the age of two, over the age of 65, and those who are immunocompromised,” Hirsch explains. That includes pregnant people, whose immune systems function at a lower capacity because otherwise they’d see a growing fetus as a potential threat.
Influenza can also be dangerous for those who don’t fall into these categories. “Even young, healthy people can be affected by the flu and become gravely ill and at risk of dying. It happens every year,” Schaffner says.
2. Flu season varies annually.
It usually lasts from around October to May at the latest, peaking between December and March. January and February are typically the worst months, Schaffner says, although he notes that there’s “a great variation from year to year,” both in terms of how long it lasts and the severity. We just have to wait and see.
If you’re interested in keeping tabs as flu season plays out, there are plenty of trackers you can use to see how things are progressing. This one on Weather.com processes the latest available data in real-time, which some flu trackers don’t.
3. No matter how young or healthy you are, you need to get the flu shot — it’s not just about you.
Everyone older than six months should get vaccinated to protect themselves and those around them. The flu vaccine prevented an estimated 1.9 million flu cases and 67,000 flu-associated hospitalizations during the 2014-2015 flu season, according to the CDC.
“The flu vaccine prevented an estimated 1.9 million flu cases and 67,000 flu-associated hospitalizations during the 2014-2015 flu season, according to the CDC.”
Besides the vaccine, there are other things you can do to avoid getting — and spreading — the flu, like washing your hands properly, avoiding contact with people who have it, and cutting down on how often you touch your eyes, nose, and mouth. Still, the vaccine is the most important factor, experts say. The earlier you get vaccinated, the better, although you can get immunized throughout the flu season, Schaffner says.
4. And, yes, that means getting one every single year.
The vaccine isn’t like your phone minutes — it can’t roll over from one year to the next, because the flu is too wily for that. “Each year, the virus mutates,” Schaffner says. “We revise the vaccine in order to keep up with these changes, which is the reason to get vaccinated each year.”
5. Getting the vaccine doesn’t mean you definitely won’t come down with the flu, though.
The vaccine, which works by triggering the formation of antibodies that protect against the virus, isn’t perfect. “In good years, the vaccine is protective in the range of about 60 percent,” meaning if you get the shot, it reduces your risk of coming down with the flu by 60 percent.
To target the most common strains, the vaccine guards against A and B viruses (which differ based on their proteins). All recommended vaccines protect against two influenza A viruses — H3N2 and H1N1 — and one or two B viruses, Hirsch explains. If one B virus is included along with the A viruses, the vaccine is called trivalent. If two B viruses are included, it’s quadrivalent.
To figure out which strains to focus on each year, scientists analyze data from over 100 countries that do year-round surveillance on which influenza viruses are most often making people sick, then tailor the shots to target those.
But the virus doesn’t stop transforming once the medical community starts formulating the vaccine. “It takes about six months to produce enough vaccine to distribute, and the virus continues to change,” Hirsch explains.
So, yes, you might get the flu even after getting the vaccine. But if you do, you’ll likely deal with a milder bout of the illness. “The very serious complications, like influenza pneumonia and death, seem to be reduced in people who get the vaccine,” Hirsch says.
6. And if you do get the flu, you’ll be contagious before you even know it.
If you get sypmtoms and think you can stay home to avoid infecting others, there’s what Schaffner calls “a biological flaw” to that reasoning. “You start exhaling the virus the day before you get sick,” he says. “The virus is in your body and already being transmitted.” Just another reason to do everything you can to not contract the flu in the first place.
7. You can’t get the flu from the flu vaccine.
“Most people have this concern, but it’s not going to happen,” Laura Cummings, Pharm.D., board certified pharmacotherapy specialist and senior clinical content specialist for Wolter Kluwers Clinical Drug Information, tells SELF. “The injection product we use is an inactivated product. It’s not a live vaccine, so you can’t get the flu from it.”
It’s normal to get a local reaction, like some soreness, redness, or swelling at the injection site. You might even get a fever for around 24 hours, Schaffner says. But that’s not the flu, it’s a common, harmless immune system reaction to the vaccine.
Some people get your garden variety cold after getting the vaccine and mistakenly blame the immunization. And if you get the vaccine but then get the actual flu right away, it was already in your system, Cummings says.
8. You actually have a choice in your vaccine.
The CDC doesn’t officially recommend one kind vaccine over the others for most people, so you have options.
The common standard-dose trivalent shots are created with inactive influenza viruses grown in eggs. There are also tailored versions that are higher dose or trigger a stronger immune response for people over 65. If you’re allergic to eggs, you can look into Flublok (the CDC calls it a “recombinant trivalent shot”), which doesn’t use eggs to create the vaccine, Manon M.J. Cox, Ph.D., M.B.A., president and CEO of Protein Sciences Corp, which manufactures Flublok, tells SELF. It also doesn’t contain the antibiotics or preservatives that are present in egg-based vaccines. There’s nothing unsafe about these ingredients when present in other vaccines, but if it’s a concern of yours, Flublok means vaccination is still an option.
This year, the nasal spray vaccine, which was available for needle-averse people between the ages of 2 and 49, isn’t available because experts realized it wasn’t protecting from the flu as well as the injectable versions. Fortunately, people who don’t like needles can request an intradermal flu vaccination—since it goes into the skin instead of the muscle, it uses a smaller needle than the regular flu shot.
9. It’s safe to get the vaccine if you’re pregnant — in fact, it’s encouraged.
The perks go beyond just shielding you. “The body makes its protection against the flu after vaccination,” Schaffner says. “Some of that protection goes across the placenta, so after the baby is born, that baby has some of his or her mother’s protection for the first months before we can vaccinate.”
10. The flu vaccine does not cause autism.
The idea that vaccines cause autism came from a paper that was retracted because there was no valid data to support those conclusions, Cox says. “It’s a very dangerous notion, and it makes people stop vaccinating their kids, which exposes them to life-threatening diseases,” Cox says. Once more, with feeling: Everyone over the age of six months should get vaccinated.
11. If you do get the flu, you don’t necessarily just have to suffer through it.
You can call your doctor to see whether they think it makes sense to prescribe an antiviral drug like Tamiflu, which can help you get better sooner if you take it quickly enough, Hirsch explains.
Beyond that, take it easy. “The important thing is to quarantine yourself a bit—this is the time to rent a movie rather than go out,” Schaffner says. Not only are you protecting other people from getting sick, you’re giving your body the rest it needs to get better.
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