Every year a new flu vaccine comes out, but is it really necessary? What is the flu shot, and how does it protect you from the flu? With flu season lasting from October to May each year, it’s important to know the facts. There are flu shots available for anyone from young children to elderly adults, and different versions of it depending on your particular health needs.
Do I need a flu shot?
Influenza is a highly contagious respiratory illness that can lead to hospitalization or even death. While most healthy individuals likely won’t end up hospitalized, children, elderly adults and those with compromised immune systems should all be sure to get vaccinated before flu season begins. Everyone six months and older should get a flu shot at the beginning of every season. Those who are pregnant or suffering from a chronic health condition should also get a flu shot. The only people who should avoid getting the vaccine are those who are under six months of age or are allergic to ingredients in the vaccine.
When should I get a flu shot?
Since the flu season usually begins in late October, it’s important to get vaccinated before then. A common myth about the flu shot is that if you get it too late in the season, it won’t be effective. After getting vaccinated, it takes approximately two weeks for your body to produce the necessary antibodies. Even so, you can get a flu shot at any time in the season and it will still be effective against the popular strains of influenza virus.
Can Getting the Flu Shot Make Me Ill?
It is a common misconception that getting the flu shot can cause you to contract the flu. Flu vaccines that are given via a needle (the flu shot), are made in two different ways. The first way includes a flu virus that has been "inactivated" meaning that it is not infectious and cannot make you ill. The second way involves only a single gene from a flu virus - as opposed to the whole virus - which causes an immune response but doesn’t make you ill. 1
What Is the Nasal Spray Vaccine?
If you feel averse to needles, there is also the option of getting a nasal spray vaccine. Instead of being injected into the skin, this vaccine is sprayed into the nose. This type of vaccine is approved for generally healthy people between the ages of 2 and 49.
People who should avoid the nasal spray vaccine:
- Children under two years of age
- Adults aged 50 years and older
- Pregnant women
- People who are allergic to any ingredient in the vaccine, or who have had an allergic reaction to the flu vaccine in the past
- People who have weakened immune systems
- Children between the ages of 2 and 4 who have asthma
- People who have taken antiviral drugs for influenza within the past 48 hours
People who should talk with their doctor before getting the nasal spray vaccine:
- People aged 5 years and older who have asthma
- People suffering from a chronic health condition 2
What Does the Flu Shot Do?
In order to understand how the flu shot works, it’s important to first understand how the immune system works. The immune system consists of two main parts: innate and adaptive. Your innate immune system provides a general defense against pathogens. Your adaptive immune system targets specific pathogens and learns how to fight against pathogens that you have already come in contact with. 3
If you are exposed to a particular strain of cold or flu virus that your body hasn’t encountered before, your immune system hasn’t built up the proper antibodies to fight it off. This is why you become ill. The next time you are exposed to that particular strain, your body has the proper antibodies in place to fight it off before it can make you sick.
The flu shot works by exposing your body to that year’s popular strains of flu viruses. Because the flu shot is either made up of either an inactivated virus or just part of a virus, it allows your immune system to build up antibodies without the risk of you becoming ill.
Which Types of Influenza Virus Does the Vaccine Protect Against?
There are three types of influenza virus: type A, B, and C. The type A virus can be contracted by both humans and animals and is often carried by birds. This is the type that most often causes seasonal outbreaks. The type B virus can only be transmitted by humans and is the second largest cause of seasonal outbreaks. The type C virus can only be transmitted by humans, but causes milder symptoms and isn’t as common.
The flu vaccine protects against certain strains of influenza type A and B viruses. There is currently no vaccine to protect against influenza type C. The particular strains of the virus that the flu shot protects against change every year since the virus is constantly mutating. Ordinarily, the flu shot is trivalent (protecting against three strains) or quadrivalent (protecting against four strains). This includes an influenza A (H1N1) virus, an influenza A (H3N2) virus, and an influenza B virus.
How Effective Is the Flu Shot?
Every year, researchers creating the flu vaccine take into consideration the fact that flu viruses may mutate. However, a drastic shift can cause the flu shot to be ineffective. If the virus mutates to a form that researchers didn’t expect, the body won’t have the proper antibodies built up to fight it off. Additionally, if there are strains of the flu going around that the flu vaccine doesn’t protect against, you can still get ill.
On average, getting the flu shot every year reduces your chances of getting the flu by approximately 40-60%. Flu vaccines are more effective against influenza B and influenza A (H1N1) than influenza A (H3N2) viruses. 4
On the bright side, getting the flu shot can produce antibodies that will help fight against mutated versions of the virus as well. Even if the mutation is too drastic to fight it off altogether, the symptoms you experience can be milder than if you hadn’t received the flu shot at all.
Are There Side Effects?
Most people who get the flu shot don’t experience any negative side effects. If you do experience side effects, they are usually mild and do not last long. Side effects of the flu shot include soreness, redness or swelling around the area the shot was given, a mild fever, or slight muscle aches. In children, side effects of the nasal spray may include a runny nose, headache, vomiting, wheezing, fever and muscle aches. In adults, side effects of the nasal spray may include a cough, sore throat, runny nose or a headache. 5
In rare cases, people experience an allergic reaction to the flu shot. If you suspect this is the case, you should contact your doctor immediately. It is often thought that people with egg allergies should avoid getting the flu shot, but this is a common misconception. The amount is so negligible in the vaccine than those with a normal egg allergy should safely be able to get the shot with no negative effects. If you have doubts, talk with a medical professional before getting the vaccine.
With a low risk of side effects and a 40-60% decrease in your risk of contracting the flu, everyone should consider getting a flu shot before the winter season. Not only will you keep yourself healthy, but you can keep your loved ones healthy as well by not carrying the virus.
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