3 Flu Shot Myths and the Truth Behind Them

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Do you need a flu shot?. Fred Dufour/AFP Creative/Getty Images

Do you think you know everything you need to about flu shots? Do you hear other people talking about flu vaccines and think you already know the truth? Maybe you believe in them and maybe you don't, but there are a lot of myths and misinformation out there that certainly make them controversial.

Unfortunately, many of the beliefs people hold about flu vaccines are not based on science or accurate information.

If you are making a decision about what is best to protect yourself and your family, you need to make a decision based on facts, not fear.

So, we will clear up three common flu shot myths and give you the truth.

Myth #1: The Flu Shot Can Give You the Flu.

The flu shot cannot give you the flu. It isn't scientifically or medically possible. The injected vaccine is made from a killed virus and it is not possible for a dead virus to make you sick. The nasal spray flu vaccine is made from an inactivated live virus. Although this vaccine uses a "live" virus, it is inactive, meaning it can't spread through your body and make you sick. Both vaccines work as a primer for your immune system. They "show" your body what the influenza virus looks like so your immune system can develop antibodies to it and you will be able to fight it off without getting sick if you are exposed to it later in the season.

There will be many people that will tell you they got the flu (or some other illness) after getting the vaccine. There are several possible explanations for why this could happen and each case is probably a little different.

Although the vaccine can have a few side effects and may even make you feel a little run down for a couple of days, it is not because it gave you the flu.

Myth #2: Flu Shots Don't Work.

This one is actually partially true - at least sometimes. Flu vaccines are not 100% effective. They don't work for everyone all the time. But they are the best protection we have against the flu. And getting one at least gives you some protection, which is better than nothing. For those people that get the flu vaccine and still get the flu, symptoms are typically more mild than they would be otherwise and you are less likely to develop complications or be hospitalized.

In an average year, flu vaccines are about 60% effective. This can vary depending on a person's age and health, the strains of influenza that are circulating and how well matched they are to the strains of influenza included in the vaccine.

Even if they don't work for everyone, the more people that get flu vaccines, the more people that will be protected. That's how herd immunity works. If a majority of the population is vaccinated, it reduces the number of people that can get sick.

This makes it less likely that those that can't be vaccinated (due to age or other contraindications) come into contact with the virus at all. Unfortunately, only about 40% of the US population gets the flu vaccine each year, making it very difficult for those people to rely on herd immunity to keep them safe. If more people would get the vaccine, they would be protecting not only themselves but also those around them.

Myth #3: You Don't Need One.

Many adults believe they don't need flu vaccines because they "never" get the flu. If you are otherwise healthy, you aren't as likely to develop complications or die from the flu, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't get a flu shot.

Getting a flu shot is better than getting the flu. Even if you think you will be able to recover from it - do you really want to spend a week in bed feeling miserable? A day or two of minor side effects are much better than a week or more with the full-blown flu.

Another benefit of getting vaccinated is that you reduce the risk to those around you that might not be as healthy or able to fight off the virus as well as you. Unless you never leave your home, you take the chance that you could expose people at high risk for flu complications to the illness if you get it. Even if you stay home when you are sick, you are contagious with the flu starting a day before your symptoms appear, so you could be spreading it without even knowing it.

Bonus: I Got a Flu Shot...Why Do I Have the Stomach Flu?

Many people believe that the flu consists of vomiting and diarrhea and they are surprised and frustrated when they still get this unfortunate illness despite getting a flu vaccine. But this really isn't the case at all. The flu shot is made to prevent influenza. It is a respiratory virus and only rarely causes vomiting and diarrhea.

The virus(es) that causes that nasty GI bug that so many people call "the flu", is not related to influenza at all. Sadly, the flu vaccine won't prevent it.

That doesn't mean it isn't worth getting though! If you still have questions that we haven't answered, see:

Sources:

"Seasonal Influenza Q&A". Seasonal Influenza (Flu) 15 Aug 14.  US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Department of Health and Human Services. 

"Key Facts About Seasonal Flu Vaccine". Seasonal Influenza (Flu) 22 Oct 14. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Department of Health and Human Services. 

"Vaccine Effectiveness - How Well Does the Flu Vaccine Work?" Seasonal Influenza (Flu) 25 Sep 13. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Department of Health and Human Services.

"Flu Vaccination Coverage, United States, 2013-14 Influenza Season". Seasonal Influenza (Flu) 18 Sep 14. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Department of Health and Human Services. 

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