Every winter, the influenza virus causes epidemics of flu in communities throughout the country.
Flu is highly contagious. It causes hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations and thousands of deaths each year.
The influenza vaccine is available every year to help protect people from coming down with flu. But is it safe?
Read on to learn about the benefits and risks of the flu shot.
Is the flu vaccine safe?
The flu vaccine is very safe, although there are some groups of people that shouldn’t get it. They include:
- children less than 6 months of age
- people who have had a severe reaction to the flu vaccine or any of its ingredients
Can the flu vaccine give me the flu?
A common worry is that the flu vaccine can give you the flu. This isn’t possible.
The injectable flu vaccine is made from an inactivated form of the influenza virus or virus components that can’t cause infection.
What are the benefits of the flu vaccine?
1. Flu prevention
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), receiving the influenza vaccine is the most effective way to prevent yourself from becoming sick with the flu.
2. You may feel less sick
If you do get sick with the flu, your symptoms may be milder if you got the vaccination.
3. Lower risk of hospitalizations or complications in certain groups
Influenza vaccination has been shown to lead to a lower risk of influenza-related complications or hospitalizations in some groups. They include:
- older adults
- pregnant women and their infants
- people with chronic conditions, such as diabetes, chronic lung disease, and cardiovascular disease
4. Protection within the community
When you protect yourself from the flu through vaccination, you’re also protecting those who can’t get vaccinated from catching the flu. This includes those who are too young to get vaccinated.
What are the risks of the flu vaccine?
1. Still getting the flu
Sometimes you can get the flu shot and still come down with the flu. It takes around two weeks after receiving the vaccination for your body to develop immunity. During this time, you can still get catch the flu.
Another reason why you can still catch the flu is if there wasn’t a good “vaccine match.” Researchers need to decide on which strains to include in the vaccine many months before flu season actually starts. When there’s not a good match between the selected strains and the strains that actually end up circulating during flu season, the vaccine isn’t as effective.
2. Severe allergic reaction
Some people may have a negative reaction to the flu shot. If you have a negative reaction to the vaccine, symptoms usually occur within minutes to hours after receiving the vaccine. Symptoms may include:
- difficulty breathing
- rapid heartbeat
- rash or hives
- swelling around the eyes and mouth
- feeling weak or dizzy
If you experience these symptoms after getting the flu vaccine, see your doctor. If the reaction is severe, go to the emergency room.
3. Guillain-Barre syndrome
Guillain-Barre syndrome is a rare condition where your immune system begins to attack your peripheral nerves. It’s very rare, but influenza virus vaccination can trigger the condition.
If you’ve already had Guillain-Barre syndrome, speak to your doctor before getting vaccinated.
Injection vs. nasal spray vaccine
The influenza vaccine can be delivered as either an injection or as a nasal spray.
The flu shot can come in a variety of forms that protect against three or four influenza strains. Although no type of flu shot is recommended over others, you should speak to your doctor about which one is best for you.
The nasal spray contains a small dose of a live, but weakened form of the influenza virus. The nasal spray was not recommended for the 2017 to 2018 influenza season due to concern for low levels of effectiveness.
Do I need to get the flu vaccine every year?
The flu vaccine is needed every year for two reasons.
The first is that your body’s immune response to influenza decreases over time. Receiving the vaccine every year helps you have continued protection.
The second reason is that the influenza virus is constantly changing. This means that the viruses that were prevalent in the previous flu season may not be in the upcoming season. The flu vaccine is updated every year to include protection against the influenza viruses most likely to circulate in the upcoming flu season.
Is the flu shot safe for babies?
All children over 6 months of age should receive the flu vaccine. Children under 6 months old are too young to receive the vaccine.
Flu vaccine side effects in babies are similar to those in adults. They may include:
- low-grade fever
- muscle aches
- soreness at the injection site
During the 2017 to 2018 influenza season, it was recommended that children receive the flu shot instead of the nasal spray. This is due to the fact that the effectiveness of the nasal spray has been lower in recent years.
Talk to your child’s doctor about which type of flu shot they recommend.
Is the flu shot safe for pregnant women?
Pregnant women should get the flu vaccine every year. Changes in your immune system during pregnancy lead to an increased risk of severe illness or hospitalization due to influenza.
Additionally, receiving the flu vaccine can help protect your baby, too. In the months after birth, anti-influenza antibodies can be passed to your baby through breast milk.
It’s recommended that pregnant women receive the flu shot as opposed to the nasal spray. You can receive the flu shot during any trimester of your pregnancy.
While the flu vaccine has had a strong safety record in pregnant women, a recent study did raise safety concerns. Researchers found an association between miscarriage and flu vaccination in the preceding 28 days.
It’s important to note that this study only included a small number of women. Additionally, the association was only statistically significant in women who had received a vaccine containing the pandemic H1N1 strain in the previous season.
While additional studies need to be completed to investigate this concern, both the CDC and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists still strongly recommend that all pregnant women receive the flu vaccine.
When should you get the flu shot?
Manufacturers typically begin shipping the flu vaccine in August. People are often encouraged to receive the vaccine as soon as it’s available.
However, a recent study found that protection begins to wane over time following vaccination. Since you’ll want to be protected throughout the entire flu season, you may not want to get your vaccine too early.
It’s recommended that you receive your vaccine by the end of October or before the virus begins to circulate in your community.
If you don’t receive your vaccination by the end of October, it isn’t too late! Getting vaccinated later can still provide protection against the influenza virus.
Every winter, millions of people get the flu. Receiving the flu vaccine is a very effective way to prevent yourself and your family from developing the flu.
There are many benefits to influenza vaccination, as well as some associated risks. If you have questions or concerns about influenza vaccination, be sure to speak to your doctor about them.