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Is the Flu Shot Really Necessary?

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It's easy to put off getting a flu shot. After all, who wants a needle poked in their arm? Some people avoid the vaccine because they believe getting it could give them the flu. As a physician, I spend lots of time during the flu season dispelling this common myth about the flu vaccine. By its very nature, the seasonal influenza vaccine shouldn't cause the flu, although a small minority of people can experience a low-grade fever or rash after being vaccinated. Other more serious events like seizures and a rare condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome are uncommon. On the other hand, people who have an allergy to eggs or have had a reaction to an influenza shot in the past should not take the vaccine.

Why the Influenza Vaccine Won't Cause the Flu

The influenza vaccine is made up of viruses that have been inactivated, so they're no long capable of causing the flu. When these "dead" viruses are injected into your body, your body forms antibodies against them. These antibodies attack live seasonal flu viruses should you be exposed to them during flu season. Thanks to the vaccine, your immune system recognizes and destroys them. The injectable form of the seasonal influenza vaccine is available for people over six months of age.

There's another form of influenza vaccine available as a nasal spray made up of flu viruses that have been weakened to the point that they're no longer capable of causing symptoms. Like the injectable vaccine, it causes your body to make protective antibodies against the current season's influenza viruses. For this form of the vaccine, you must be at least two years of age, under the age of 50 and not currently pregnant.

Why Is the Flu Vaccine Important?

Getting vaccinated against the flu may sound like an inconvenience but having influenza is no piece of cake either. I've had patients tell me after their first bout with flu that they'll be the first person in line to get their vaccine next year. Not only is the flu physically uncomfortable, the average person misses two to 10 days of work recovering. That can hit your pocketbook pretty hard.

As if the aches, fever, headache and cough aren't bad enough, according to the CDC, flu accounts for 3,000 to 49,000 deaths each season. Who's most at risk? People over the age of 65, young children, pregnant women and people with other medical conditions. Still, it's possible for anyone to have a bad outcome and end up with a complication like pneumonia.

What about the people around you? Maybe you think you're tough enough to get through the flu, but you can unknowingly spread it to people around you, like young children and older people who may not fare as well. If everyone got the influenza vaccine, the impact of seasonal flu would be dramatically reduced.

Is the Influenza Vaccine Heart-Healthy?

Need another reason to roll up your sleeve? One study showed that adults who got the vaccination were less likely to experience a heart attack. This doesn't necessarily mean that the influenza vaccine prevents heart attacks, just that there's a link between the two. Still, it's another factor to consider, especially if you're older. In fact the CDC recommends that everyone over the age of 65, pregnant women and people with medical problems get vaccinated. Also, people who are in direct contact with the elderly or people who are ill should be immunized.

Got It Last Year? You Still Need It This Year

Even if you were vaccinated last flu season, you still need to roll up your sleeve again this year. Last year's vaccine won't protect you against this year's influenza strains. That's because the viruses that cause influenza are different every year. Plus, the antibodies you form against last year's flu viruses diminish over time.

The Bottom Line?

Don't be afraid of a little needle stick. Get the seasonal influenza vaccine before flu season starts, so you'll be protected. It takes about two weeks to develop full antibody protection, so get vaccinated in early fall. You'll be glad you did.

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