AltHealth: Separating Flu Shot Facts from Fiction

The 2018–2019 flu season is upon us and every pharmacy in the state has signs up urging people to get vaccinated. There was a small line when I dropped by CVS at 12:45pm. I asked the man in front of me, “Here for the flu shot?” He grimaced. “I never used to get them, but I work with kids now.” Yup. I was there for the same reason.

Every year, thousands of people flock to get their flu shots, and every year, there’s also a group of resisters who dig their heels in. “The reactions are worse than the flu,” they say or, “I heard of someone who died after getting a shot,” or, “My friend got the flu FROM the vaccine.” A lot of this evidence is anecdotal, so let’s take a look at some facts that we know.

Fact #1: You cannot get the flu from a flu shot. It contains entirely inert viruses. However, if you already have the flu and get a shot, your vaccination will not keep you from becoming ill. It takes about 2 weeks for your body to achieve maximum protection. During that period, you could get the flu. You could also have a heart attack, develop pneumonia or get hit by a truck, but none of that has anything to do with your vaccination. If you do the research and compare stats, the rate of death from other causes is no higher for people who get flu shots than it is for people who don’t.

Fact #2: There are definitely some people who should not get the shot. Children under 6 months of age should not get it, nor should anyone who has ever had Guillain-Barre Syndrome. If you’re running a fever, wait until it falls. Those with severe, life-threatening allergies, especially to eggs, need to be extremely cautious. The CDC is aware of a very small number of deaths that occurred after flu shots; all proven cases were due to egg allergies. Fortunately, egg-free vaccines are now available.

Fact #3: While reactions from the flu shot are a scary thought, here’s an even scarier one: Anywhere from 3 to 49,000 people die of flu-related causes each year. The CDC doesn’t know the exact number because states are not required to report flu-related cases or deaths of people older than 18 years of age. However, pediatric flu deaths must be reported by law, so we know for a fact that a total of 183 children died of the flu during the 2017-2018 season. Eighty percent of these deaths occurred in children who had not received a flu vaccination.

I asked my friend, Dr. H, if he gets the flu shot. He told me, “All healthcare workers have to get the vaccine or wear a mask, which is more like punishment for not getting it than anything else.” But, when symptoms are present, he recommends masks. “Anyone who comes into my office with any coughing, sore throat or runny nose, I have them put a face mask on to keep me from getting whatever they have; I don’t want to get it and give it to others.” Viruses are also passed along when you touch mucus droplets on a surface and then touch your own eyes, mouth or nose, so washing is an important precautionary step as well. Hand sanitizers aren’t as effective as soap and water, but they’ll do in a pinch. Viruses like the flu can live up to 24 hours or longer on plastic and metal surfaces such as cafeteria tables, doorknobs and railings.

Fact #4: The vaccinations are not 100% effective; people who are vaccinated sometimes still get the flu, although their symptoms tend to be milder. Dr. H says, “Frankly, doctors get pissed off when the vaccine doesn’t work because they have a high risk of getting it then passing it on to many others, especially sick people. But giving it to everyone makes the most sense, even if it isn’t a 100% guarantee.” I asked if he’d seen any adverse reaction to the flu shot in his patients. “It’s rare,” he told me. “Very few people have any serious reactions.”

Did I have any reactions to my own shot? Well, I’ll be honest – I had the high dose version this year and it hurt like hell. The shot itself was a sharp sting and my arm is still a little sore. I did feel dizzy when I got up around 3am the first night, but after yoga in the morning, my balance was fully restored. I had some puffiness and redness around one eye, but it wore off. Anything major? Not really; and I tend to get side effects from everything.

Want to get a flu shot? Now is the time. Flu clinics abound, and if you are a RI resident, you are in luck – even if you aren’t insured, both CVS and the Stop & Shop Pharmacies will provide a free vaccine for anyone with ID who comes in. Walgreens and Rite Aid require insurance, and charge $41.99 to those without. Check with your own doctor’s office.

For detailed information on the 2018 –2019 flu season, visit: cdc.gov/flu/about/season/flu-season-2018-2019.htm

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