Flu Shot 101 – What You Need to Know for the Influenza Season
from Consumer Safety, medically reviewed by Dr. C.H. Weaver M.D. 9/2020
Flu season is coming again, and besides a fever and runny nose, it can bring about the longtime controversy surrounding vaccines. Moreover the COVID pandemic has heightened awareness of viral spread and the importance of hand washing, distancing, and vaccination. In order to protect more human lives this year and to clarify some of the most common misconceptions surrounding the flu vaccine, the team at ConsumerSafety.org met with Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt Medical University. Below are answers to some of the most common queries surrounding the flu vaccine. (1-5)
What You Need to Know for the Flu Season
- Flu vaccines have been updated to better match circulating viruses
- The nasal spray flu vaccine (live attenuated influenza vaccine or “LAIV”) is again a recommended option for influenza vaccination of persons for whom it is otherwise appropriate. The nasal spray is approved for use in non-pregnant individuals, 2 years through 49 years of age. There is a precaution against the use of LAIV for people with certain underlying medical conditions. All LAIV will be quadrivalent (four-component).
What flu vaccines are recommended this season?
For this flu season the options this include:
- Standard dose flu shots. These are given into the muscle. They are usually given with a needle, but two (Afluria and Afluria Quadrivalent) can be given to some people (those aged 18 through 64 years) with a jet injector.
- High-dose shots for older people.
- Shots made with adjuvant for older people.
- Shots made with virus grown in cell culture.
- Shots made using a vaccine production technology (recombinant vaccine) that does not require the use of flu virus.
- Live attenuated influenza vaccine (LAIV) – or the nasal spray vaccine – is also an option for use during this season for persons whom it is otherwise appropriate.
How is the Flu Vaccine Created?
Contrary to popular belief, the flu vaccine you receive this year is not the same vaccine that you received last year. The flu, also known as influenza, is a respiratory virus that is able to mutate and evolve over time. According to Dr. Schaffner, the virus can “change sometimes from year to year, perhaps every 2-3 years.” Therefore, the vaccine needs to change and evolve as well to keep people protected every year.
Because parts of the world experience flu season at the opposite time that we do, there are actually two vaccines developed every year – one for the northern hemisphere and one for the southern hemisphere. Each vaccine is developed nine months prior to flu season in a collaborative effort between the World Health Organization (WHO), the FDA, and the CDC. Based on WHO’s year-round global surveillance and influenza sampling, expert committees can “make recommendations about the creation of the vaccine” for each half of the world.
Who Needs the Flu Vaccine?
Everyone is at risk for the flu, and therefore with a few exceptions, everyone is recommended to get vaccinated. According to the CDC, everyone six months or older should receive an annual flu shot. Contrary to popular belief, this recommendation includes pregnant women, seniors, and children. It’s also important to note that not only is it safe for pregnant women, but the mother’s vaccine will actually protect the infant for six months after its birth.
In milder cases of the flu, a person experiences cold-like symptoms. However in its most severe form, the flu can lead to complications like pneumonia and even death. According to Dr. Schaffner, those most at risk for more serious complications include “people who are age 65 and older, and people who have underlying illnesses – heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, and the like who are immunosuppressed.” By receiving the vaccine, not only are you protecting yourself from this harmful virus, but you are also protecting those around you who might have a harder time fighting the flu.
Besides infants under the age of 6 months old, people who have Guillain-Barré syndrome, a very rare illness should NOT get the vaccination. Dr. Schaffner says that “if you’ve had Guillain-Barré syndrome within 6 weeks of getting flu vaccine previously, you probably should not get flu vaccine this time.”
When Should a Person Get the Flu Vaccine?
Dr. Schaffner recommends anytime between September and November, and went on to explain that “vaccine interest on the part of providers and patients stops around Thanksgiving.” However, though our interest may wane, the peak season for flu outbreaks is often in February. So if it hits December or January and you still have not gotten your flu shot, Dr. Schaffner urges you to head to your nearest flu clinic. “RUN! Do not walk. Run and get your flu shot, because you can still get protection before the flu hits most seriously.”
Who Should Get the Flu Vaccine?
Whether you’re in cancer treatment or a long-term cancer survivor, keep in mind that it’s important to manage all aspects of your health. Some research has suggested that cancer survivors are less likely than other people to receive routine preventive care or management of chronic conditions such as diabetes or heart disease.(1) Staying in touch with your primary care provider (in addition to your cancer specialists) may help you manage these other aspects of your health.
Flu vaccines are an important part of preventive care, particularly for people with a history of cancer or certain other health conditions. As a cancer survivor, you’re at increased risk of complications from the flu.(2) These complications can lead to hospitalization or even death.
To prevent the flu, cancer patients and cancer survivors are advised to get both a seasonal flu shot and an H1N1 flu shot (not the nasal spray vaccines). (2) People who live with or care for someone with a history of cancer should also be vaccinated against the seasonal flu and H1N1.
If you have a history of cancer and develop flu symptoms, contact your healthcare provider. Symptoms of flu include fever, cough, sore throat, stuffy nose, aches, headaches, chills, and fatigue. Depending on your circumstances, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral drug such as Tamiflu® (oseltamivir) or Relenza® (zanamivir).
You should also call your doctor if you’re a cancer patient or cancer survivor and have been exposed to someone with the flu. Your doctor may decide to use antiviral drugs to prevent the flu.
Finally, talk with your doctor about whether you’re up-to-date with other recommended vaccines. Pneumococcal vaccination, for example, is recommended for adults age 65 or older, as well as younger people who have certain health conditions.(3)
Can the Flu Vaccine Give Someone the Flu?
No. After a flu shot, you may experience a headache, sore arm, redness, or a bump near the inoculation site, but the vaccine cannot give you the virus. As Dr. Schaffner explains, “The flu vaccine is not the complete virus. It’s broken up pieces of the virus. It can’t reconstitute itself and give you the flu.” The flu shot is administered during a season with high rates of colds and other airborne infections. Oftentimes when people get sick after a flu shot, they mistake a common cold for the flu by simple coincidence.
Is the Flu Vaccine Always Effective?
No, the flu shot is not 100% effective. In an age of money-back guarantees, many critics wonder why they should bother with a flu shot when they might still contract the virus. Dr. Schaffner argues that, “the protection effectiveness is measured as protection against the disease completely. What that doesn’t tell you is that you often get partial protection.” So you get a flu shot, and you still get the flu. The flu shot is still doing its part by lessening the severity of the virus. When it comes to a virus that takes tens of thousands of lives per year due to complications of high fever and pneumonia, Dr. Schaffner welcomes your complaints saying, “It’s wonderful that you’re here to complain. You didn’t die!” A mild case of the flu is better than a deadly case of the flu.
With the flu killing 30,000 to 40,000 individuals in the United States, it is imperative that more people recognize the dangers of the virus and the benefits of the vaccine. While the vaccine is not 100% effective, doctors and scientists work diligently every year to save as many people as possible from this deadly disease. You can make a difference too! Make the step towards health for you and your family this flu season and schedule your flu vaccination today.
More information about vaccine recommendations and vaccine-preventable diseases is available from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- Earle CC, Neville BA. Under use of necessary care among cancer survivors. Cancer. 2004;101:1712-9.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cancer, the Flu, and You. Available here Accessed January 8, 2010.
- Recommended Adult Immunization Schedule—United States, 2009. MMWR QuickGuide. January 9, 2009 / Vol. 57 / No. 53.
- Frequently Asked Flu Questions 2018-2019 Influenza Season
- Health and Safety Investigator with ConsumerSafety.org