According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), studies show that the flu vaccine can lower the risk of getting this nasty bug by approximately 60 percent. Despite this, many people don't get vaccinated. For some people, the reason is due to misinformation. We asked Robin Neale, CLS, CIC, director of Infection Prevention at Care New England, to help us get the facts straight.
Q: Can you get the flu from a flu shot?
Neale: No. Flu virus in the injectable vaccine has been inactivated and, therefore, it isn't infectious. The virus in the nasal spray has been weakened, so it cannot cause influenza disease either.
Q: Do some vaccines still contain mercury? What problems can this cause?
Neale: Mercury-free vaccines are widely available. Some vaccines do contain small amounts of thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used to prevent bacteria or fungi from growing. Data from studies show that a low dose of thimerosal is safe, but since mercury-free vaccines are available, this should not be a concern.
Q: Is getting the flu better than getting the flu vaccine?
Neale: No. If you contract influenza, you will only develop protective antibodies against that particular strain that is making you sick, whereas the vaccine can provide protection against several strains of influenza. In addition, side effects of the flu shot are usually mild, while illness from influenza can be severe and, in some cases, even fatal.
Q: Is it necessary to get the flu vaccine every year?
Neale: Yes. Circulating flu strains change each year, and immunity decreases over time.
Q: Why do some people feel sick after getting the flu vaccine?
Neale: Most people who get the flu shot do not feel sick afterwards. However, some people have mild reactions where the shot was given including soreness, redness, or swelling. Others experience fainting, headache, muscle aches, fever, and nausea. The most common side effects from nasal spray flu vaccine in adults are runny nose, headache, sore throat, and cough.
Q: Is it possible to get a serious reaction to the flu vaccine?
Neale: Serious reactions are very rare, but as with any vaccine, it is possible.
Q: Why do some people still get the flu after getting the vaccine?
Neale: There are several reasons, including:
- You may be sick with a flu-like illness that is not truly the flu.
- You may become ill with a strain of flu virus that was not covered in the vaccine, even though scientists do their best to predict which vaccines will circulate widely.
- You may have been recently vaccinated and not yet developed protective antibodies.
- You may not have developed enough antibodies to get complete protection from the flu. No vaccine can provide complete protection.
Q: Can a child get autism from getting the vaccine?
Neale: Some people have speculated that vaccines or vaccine ingredients, such as thimerosal, may cause autism. Studies have shown no evidence that vaccines cause autism.
Q: Can someone get Guillian Barre (GBS)from the flu vaccine?
Neale: GBS, a disorder that attacks the nervous system, is an autoimmune disease in which a person’s own antibodies attack nerve cells--causing weakness and paralysis. The exact cause is not known, but in many cases, it occurs after an infection such as flu or diarrhea. In 1976, there was a small increased risk of GBS following a flu vaccination made to protect against a swine flu virus. Since then, there hasn't been any further evidence of increased risk. Between 80 and 160 people develop GBS each year in the United States, regardless of vaccination.
Q: Is getting vaccinated twice better than once?
Neale: CDC recommends one dose for adults.
Q: What's the best time of year to get the vaccine? Is it ever too late?
Neale: It is best to be vaccinated early on in flu season (which runs from October to May), before the virus starts to circulate. However, it is never too late to be vaccinated as long as flu disease is still present.
Q: Should certain people not get the flu vaccine?
Neale: People who are allergic to any component of the vaccine, or who have had a severe reaction in the past to flu vaccination, should not be vaccinated. People with moderate to severe acute illness should wait to be vaccinated until they feel better. Pregnant women and those with long-term health problems (e.g., heart, lung, liver disease, diabetes, cancer, immune problems) should be vaccinated using injectable (killed) vaccine. People with a history of GBS should discuss vaccination with their doctor.