There are many misconceptions about getting a flu shot. With COVID-19 cases on the rise again, getting a flu shot is more important than ever.
Flu season has officially begun, and this year, the common fear is that the continuing COVID-19 pandemic will cause a “twindemic” that could overwhelm the healthcare system. COVID-19 has been the biggest health concern of 2020, but the flu remains a dangerous health threat. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), up to 60,000 people in the United States die from the flu each year and more than 800,000 are hospitalized.
Despite the many benefits offered, only about half of Americans get an annual flu vaccine. “Everyone six months and older should get a seasonal vaccination,” says Dr. Michael Zuckman, an Internal Medicine specialist with White Plains Hospital Medical & Wellness in Armonk. “Some people, such as those over age 65, young children, and those with underlying health conditions, are at high risk for serious flu complications. Getting vaccinated protects not only yourself, but the people around you.”
Flu Facts vs. Fiction
Fiction: The flu shot is ineffective
There are many misconceptions about the flu vaccination, starting with its effectiveness. “The vaccination, on average, is about 45% effective each year. Because of that, people look at that percentage and think it’s ineffective,” says Dr. Zuckman. “What they may not realize is that number represents the percentage of people who do not have to be hospitalized. If look you at it from that perspective, you can see the value in getting a flu shot.”
Fiction: The flu shot will get you sick
People who forgo getting an annual vaccination often express concern that the shot will give them the flu, and they fear the side effects. “The vaccine is formulated from dead or inactive viruses, so it will not make you sick with the flu. It is also administered in your arm muscle, which is not an area the flu virus normally reaches,” continued Dr. Zuckman. Additionally, the CDC has reported that there is no evidence that getting a flu vaccine increases the risk of getting sick from a coronavirus.
The residual effects from a flu vaccination are far less than developing the flu itself. “You might experience muscle aches, a headache or a slight temperature, all of which mimic the flu,” says Dr. Zuckman. “The vaccine stimulates the immune system, so in a way, having flu-like symptoms is a good response. Typically, the symptoms disappear in a day or two.”
Fiction: You don’t need to get the flu shot every year
Being vaccinated in the past that does not necessarily mean you are immune to this year’s strains of influenza. Multiple flu strains circulate in any given year. Because flu viruses evolve so quickly, last year’s vaccine may not protect you from this year’s viruses. “Research has shown that the flu vaccine lasts five to six months,” notes Dr. Zuckman. “So even if there is no mutation of the flu, you will need a booster shot each year. The good news is a yearly vaccine can protect you against three or four of the most likely strains.”
Fiction: Women who are pregnant should not got a flu shot
In reality, getting vaccinated is the best way to protect a mother-to-be from getting the flu. Changes in the immune system, heart, and lungs during pregnancy can make a pregnant woman more susceptible to severe illness from flu. An Oxford Academy study released in 2018, reported that getting a flu vaccine decreases a pregnant woman’s chances of being hospitalized by an average of 40%.
Fiction: I’m wearing a mask already so I must be protected
Although it is reassuring that most Americans are following health and safety protocols to guard against COVID-19, there is an associated myth that you do not need a flu shot if you wear a mask. “There is no evidence to support such a claim,” says Dr. Zuckerman. “In fact, the CDC recently conducted studies in countries in the southern hemisphere in the midst of their winter while we were having summer. What they experienced can be seen as a model for what we can expect to happen in the fall and winter in the U.S. There was an enormous decrease of cases of influenza during that period, which was attributed to getting a flu vaccine, along with wearing masks and social distancing.”
Along with getting a vaccination, Dr. Zuckman recommends trying these healthy habits to help fight the flu:
- Wash your hands frequently and vigorously for at least 15 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Avoid close contact with others who may be sick.
- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, then wash your hands. The flu and other serious respiratory illnesses such as whooping cough and COVID-19 are spread by cough, sneezing, or unclean hands.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces, such as doorknobs, table tops and keyboards.
- Look out for your health! Eat more leafy greens, exercise regularly, and get eight hours of sleep.