According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), on average 5% to 20% of the U.S. population gets the flu each year. Hundreds of thousands of people are hospitalized from flu-related complications, and anywhere from a few thousand to 50,000 people die each year from flu.
The best way to avoid getting the flu, says the CDC, is by getting a seasonal flu vaccination each year. The CDC recommends everyone 6 months and older get a flu shot, unless you have an allergy to eggs or to any ingredient in the vaccine.
(Even then, the CDC explains that people who have experienced only hives after exposure to egg should still get "any licensed and recommended flu vaccine that is otherwise appropriate for the recipient's age and health status." And according to a new research analysis of 28 studies on egg allergies and flu shots, anyone with an egg allergy should get the vaccine — "no special precautions are required.")
So if you're considering a trip to your doctor or the local pharmacy for a flu shot, here are five things to know:
1. The risks are minimal.
A flu vaccine is not 100% safe and effective, but it's close to it. The CDC says the flu vaccines are "among the safest medical products in use," and the risk of a flu shot doing you any harm is "extremely small." Most people have no problem with it. A normal reaction may include soreness, redness or swelling at the injection site. You may have a small fever. Like any medicine, there may be a risk of allergic reaction, the CDC says.
However, adverse side effects have been documented in peer-reviewed medical journals. For example, a study in Human and Experimental Toxicology reported that there were 590 fetal-loss reports per 1 million pregnant women vaccinated (or 1 per 1,695) during the 2009-2010 flu season.
According to most peer-reviewed research, the chances of encountering problems are statistically minimal; however, possible adverse effects from flu vaccine documented in medical literature include:
- Febrile seizure
- Guillain-Barré syndrome
2. The nasal spray is available again.
The nasal spray vaccine was not an option for several flu seasons, much to the chagrin of needle-phobes and children, as it was proven to be less effective.
In June 2016, the CDC recommended against using the flu spray, citing a lack of evidence that it had been effective in the past. However, a few months later, a Canadian study appeared to offer contradicting evidence about the spray's effectiveness. As NPR points out, however, the two findings are not comparing the same thing as one looked at evidence of the vaccine that used three strains of the virus and another looked at a four-strain vaccine.
But the CDC says the nasal spray vaccine is again approved for use in people under 50 years old. It's not recommended for pregnant women, children under 2 or those with a weakened immune system. Check with your doctor if you have questions if it is right for you.
3. A good mood may make the shot more effective.
A study published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity found that having a positive mood may increase the effectiveness of the flu vaccine more so than diet, sleep and exercise. Researchers at the University of Nottingham tracked the mood, diet, exercise and sleep patterns of 138 adults ages 65 to 85 for six weeks before they got flu shots. After these subjects were vaccinated, researchers measured the amount of flu antibodies they produced after the injection. Participants who reported being in a pleasant mood prior to vaccination had higher levels of antibodies after getting the shot.
4. The flu shot does not give you the flu.
One thing both proponents and opponents of the flu shot agree on is that there are a few different types of flu vaccines, and sometimes, adverse side effects do occur from the shot.
Currently, there in only one type of flu vaccine on the market this season: a four-component shot. Contrary to popular belief, the vaccines do not contain the live flu virus. “The vaccine is taken from two of the hundreds of different proteins that compose an influenza virus,” says the Mayo Clinic and Infectious Disease Society of America's Dr. Greg Poland. “Taking merely two surface proteins off the virus does not mean it’s live; there’s no organism there … it’s not possible to cause infection or disease with it … the flu shot does not give you the flu,” adds Poland.
5. There are humane reasons to get the flu shot.
“Protecting oneself is an altruistic act. By getting vaccinated, you not only protect yourself, but you protect those around you as well,” says Dr. Elizabeth Baorto, division director of Pediatric Infectious Disease at Goryeb Children’s Hospital in Morristown, New Jersey. “We are fortunate that we have a cheap and effective way of protecting ourselves with the flu vaccine.”
So, is it in your best interest to get the flu vaccine, regardless if a superbug is headed our way?
Poland unequivocally thinks so. “Which risk would you take?” he asks: “One in a million of a side effect or a one in 10,000 risk being hospitalized or dying. Flu-related illnesses cost the U.S. $90 billion a year, or almost one percent of GDP,” adds Poland.
Editor's note: This story was published in 2012 and has been updated with new information.