Flu Shot Myths and Facts

Getting a flu shot is important - don't let myths and misinformation hold you back


With the arrival of chilly temperatures, we spend more time indoors, nestled inside warm buildings that provide shelter from any harsh weather that threatens to pummel our windows. Sounds pretty cozy, except that as we congregate in closed buildings, germs accumulate on surfaces, just waiting for an unsuspecting victim, or they travel through the air, launched from a sneeze or a cough, and head in your direction. Days later, the symptoms creep in. A scratchy throat, maybe. Feeling a little rundown, perhaps. And then, it hits.

Like an unwanted house guest, the flu shows up and elbows its way into our lives, not giving us a break until it’s on its way to torment someone else. There’s never a good time for the flu, but particularly since you never know when you’re going to get it — or how sick you might become — it makes sense to protect yourself.

One of the best defenses against the flu: A flu shot. The flu vaccine lessens your chance of getting sick, and usually diminishes the flu’s effects if you do fall ill. Some studies show that even in the elderly, vaccination cuts the risk of coming down with severe flu by about half. “That’s a pretty significant risk reduction for a pretty common disease,” says Alexander B. Granok, MD, FACP, an infectious disease and travel medicine specialist at Infectious Disease Associates in Merrimack, and Foundation Medical Partners.

"Vaccines are so much better to get and so safe as compared with getting the disease."

So why don’t more of us line up for a flu shot? “There’s a lot of resistance” to the flu vaccine, says Lynda Caine, RN, BSN, MPH, the infection prevention officer at Concord Hospital. “‘I don’t want to get a vaccine,’ ‘I don’t know what’s in it,’ ‘I never get sick’ — I hear those kinds of things year after year,” she says, “and it’s a shame because vaccines are so much better to get and so safe as compared with getting the disease.”

Thinking about the time you got the vaccine and then felt lousy a couple of days later? Despite common notions to the contrary, getting the flu shot will not give you the flu. “It is medically impossible to get the flu from that vaccine,” Granok says, because the vaccine does not contain any live virus. It’s true that some people might experience a mild reaction to the shot that in some ways mimics flu symptoms, such as a low-grade fever and achiness, but other people will have no reaction at all. A person’s individual response can differ from year to year, most likely due to the varied strains that are in the vaccine’s mix and the vaccine recipient’s level of preexisting immunity to those strains, Granok says. But the shot contains a virus that was grown in a lab and then killed. Since the virus is dead, it cannot transmit disease, Granok says.

Nasal-spray flu vaccines, attractive to the needle-averse, are a slightly different story. They do contain a live, albeit weakened, virus and carry a higher risk that recipients will experience slight cold-like symptoms after receiving the dose, but that’s about it. However, “sometimes people get sick shortly after they get the flu shot and attribute that to the flu shot when they would have gotten sick anyhow,” Caine says, and the flu shot takes the fall for an illness that it did not contribute to.

"The vaccines are strong, they’re safe, they’re effective."

In addition to the nasal spray, other alternatives to traditional flu vaccines have appeared on the market, including a vaccine that protects against four different flu strains, rather than the customary three. A shot that doesn’t penetrate the skin as much as the traditional vaccine also exists now, along with egg-free shots for people who are allergic to eggs, and a high-dose vaccine for older people, says Caine. But specialty shots are usually best suited for individuals who fall into a special-risk group since those shots are harder to come by than the conventional vaccine, and typically are more costly, she says. “Not every physician practice will offer them, [whereas] the traditional shot is very easy to get,” she says. But “they’re all effective.”

Healthy people who feel that they needn’t bother with the vaccine should keep in mind that not getting a flu shot — or going to work when sick — puts everyone at risk, Caine says. “The vaccines are strong, they’re safe, they’re effective, and they protect more than the person who gets [them],” she says, because even though a healthy person might experience a virus only on a low level, with, say, just a sore throat and sniffles, that same person can spread the illness to others, including children, the elderly and people who have a weakened immune system, and those individuals might react very differently to the same virus. 

The bird flu: Are we at risk?

Just as many of us join theranks of “locally grown” enthusiasts and backyard chicken coops crop up all over suburbia, the bird flu is in the headlines. Should we be worried? Not yet, although experts remain watchful. “Fortunately, at this stage, it hasn’t evolved into a virus that can spread from person to person very well,” says Alexander B. Granok, MD, FACP, an infectious disease and travel medicine specialist at Infectious Disease Associates in Merrimack, and Foundation Medical Partners. Eating chicken or chicken eggs also currently poses no real bird flu threat for us, Granok says, since cooking chickens or their eggs kills any virus that might lurk within, and most of us are already careful to properly cook chicken products, due to well-publicized salmonella risks.

The lowdown on megadosing

People who madly crunch vitamin C tablets at the beginning of flu season might want to reconsider their anti-flu strategy since attempting to shore up the immune system as flu season looms is not likely to provide any real protection against illness, according to research. Even the powers of echinacea, which some people swear by to ward off the flu, are not generally supported by scientific research, says Alexander B. Granok, MD, FACP, an infectious disease and travel medicine specialist at Infectious Disease Associates in Merrimack, and Foundation Medical Partners. You’re much better off to get adequate rest and eat a good diet as best you can year-round rather than going the megadose route, Granok says, and the benefits of doing so will spread far beyond your immune system.

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