Flu vaccine_Someone is getting a flu shot in their shoulder/upper arm

Myths and misconceptions about the flu shot

A family medicine physician answers commonly asked questions about the flu vaccine
November 8, 2019

Flu season is one of the only predictable health issues that happens at the same time every year. We know it happens, and we even have a way to decrease our chance of it happening, yet fewer than half of all Americans get the flu vaccine each year. Family medicine physician Brandon Williamson, MD, clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Medicine and primary care physician at the Texas A&M Health Family Care, addresses people’s biggest concerns about the flu shot.

What is the flu shot?

Influenza (commonly known as the flu) can be contracted at any time of the year. However, flu season generally starts in October and lasts through the winter and well into the early spring. “The flu shot is the best chance you have to protect yourself from getting the flu,” Williamson said. “It reduces your chance of contracting it as well as the severity of symptoms if you do get it.”

Major symptoms of the flu include fever, sore throat, runny nose, cough and muscle aches. If you notice these symptoms, Williamson recommends you visit your primary care provider to get tested for the flu.

Can you catch the flu from the flu shot?

Most flu shots are inactivated. This means the parts of the flu that are within the vaccine are not alive and cannot give you the flu. The most common flu vaccine symptom is arm pain at the injection site. However, flu-like symptoms like a low-grade fever or muscle aches after a flu shot are possible, although fairly uncommon.

Williamson says if you feel sick after your flu shot, then it is more likely that you contracted another illness. “Flu shot season always coincides with the season where everyone comes down with a cold,” Williamson said. “People can feel certain symptoms like a mild fever after the vaccine. However, it is much more likely they are fighting off another more mild illness that is completely separate from the flu and the flu shot.” 

Can you get the flu shot while you are sick?

“In general, you can get your flu vaccine when you have a mild illness with symptoms like a runny nose or scratchy throat,” Williamson explained. “However, if you find you are feeling worse than that, then wait to get your vaccine.” He suggests this precaution, so the symptoms of your illness are not mixed-up with the possible vaccine side effects.

On a similar note, a provider will likely recommend against the nasal vaccine if you have a respiratory illness.

Can you get the flu shot when you have an egg allergy?

“Historically, someone with an egg allergy could not get a flu shot,” Williamson said. “However, in the current vaccines, the amount of egg in the vaccine is so tiny that it does not cause an issue in most people.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports 1.31 per 1 million flu vaccine doses result in an allergic reaction, or anaphylaxis.

Can you get the flu even if you get the flu shot?

“The flu shot decreases your chance that you will get the flu,” Williamson said. “However, almost more important, the flu shot decreases the severity of your symptoms if you do get the flu.” If you notice symptoms, immediately visit your primary care provider to discuss treatment options.

The creation of the flu shot requires guessing. They take a previous virus and do their best to create a vaccine for the current virus. However, the vaccine for sure improves symptoms.

Can an antiviral medication like Tamiflu cure the flu?

If you do have the flu, your provider may suggest an antiviral medication that works to reduce the length of time you experience flu symptoms. This prescription may be especially important if you are a patient at higher risk for complications like an older adult or someone with asthma.

“Some antiviral medications can shorten the course and decrease the complications of the flu,” Williamson said. “This type of medication only works if you start it early enough. If you suspect you have the flu, get tested sooner rather than later.”

Do I need the flu shot?

“As long as you are older than 6 months and your provider recommends it, then yes. Get your flu shot,” Williamson said. “Everyone who can get the flu shot should get vaccinated. We want to protect those who cannot get the vaccine.”

— Mary Leigh Meyer

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