Many health professionals recommend seasonal flu vaccines as a preventive measure. But are they safe? Are they necessary? Do they actually work? Or are they a shot in the dark? Here’s what you need to know about influenza vaccines to decide for yourself.
Overall, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends all Americans older than six months get the flu vaccine each season and that it’s especially important for people at high risk of flu complications and those who live with or care for them. People at high risk include those with certain medical conditions, such as heart disease, lung disease, HIV and kidney or liver disorders. People who are age 65 and older, pregnant women, and health care professionals are also at risk for flu complications.
Despite these recommendations, opinions differ, even among flu vaccine experts. “There is some controversy surrounding whether or not the flu vaccine is a good idea,” said James Wilde, MD, pediatric emergency medicine physician at Georgia Regents Health System in Augusta who has spent much of his career dealing with flu and prevention. “Personally, I am not a big fan of the flu vaccine,” he said. “I don’t think the flu vaccine is a bad thing, but I do believe it’s only necessary for high risk populations. I don’t agree with the national authorities that say everyone should get a flu vaccine.”
Flu Vaccine and Health
Some research is also less than supportive of the flu vaccine. For instance, a 2011 study, published in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases, looked at data on the flu vaccine between 1967 and 2011 and reported that, overall, the flu vaccine was only about 60 percent effective in people aged 18 to 65.
Despite skepticism, most medical professionals still recommend the flu vaccine for prevention of flu, particularly among those who are vulnerable to complications. Jon McCullers, MD, Dunavant professor and chair in the department of pediatrics at the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center and pediatrician-in-chief at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, is one of them. “I think everyone over age 6 months should get the flu vaccine,” he said.
What are the side effects of the flu vaccine?
In general, flu vaccines are very safe. Side effects are usually mild and go away on their own. In rare cases, people experience more severe reactions.
Side effects of the injection
You can’t get the flu from getting a flu shot. A small amount of the influenza virus is used to make the flu shot. However, the final injectable vaccine doesn’t contain any live virus, and it can’t produce an active infection in your body.
You may experience soreness in the spot where you get the flu shot. That’s caused by your immune system’s reaction to the vaccine, which allows your body to produce protective antibodies to fight off the real influenza virus.
You may also experience some of the following side effects after getting the flu shot:
- a fever
- muscle aches
- a headache
A small number of people experience more severe reactions. Life-threatening allergic reactions to the flu shot are rare.
Side effects of the nasal spray
The nasal spray contains the live flu virus in a weakened form. Some people, usually children, develop some mild, flu-like symptoms after using the nasal spray.
The flu can be very uncomfortable and even life-threatening in some cases. Consider getting an annual flu vaccine to help protect yourself. It’s a safe and effective option for many people. Getting the flu vaccine is especially important for people at high risk for secondary infections and flu-related complications.
Talk to your doctor if you’re not sure if the flu vaccine is safe for you. They can help you understand the benefits and risks. They can also provide other tips for avoiding the flu and other contagious illnesses.