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Our expert debunks the most common myths about the flu shot

December 03, 2013

It’s that time of year again—the days are shorter, the nights are longer and temperatures are getting cooler. That can only mean one thing—flu season is upon us. The little elves at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) have been hard at work since last flu season to bring us the greatest gift of all—flu vaccinations for everyone!

Very few of us look forward to getting our annual flu shot, but the virus-fearing public will line up outside the pharmacy just to get it over with. But for every one of us that obliges the CDC’s request to get vaccinated (as it is a public health concern), there is another who refuses to get it.

For some of us who have a needle-phobia (or so we think), squeamishness can often stand in the way of proper vaccination. However, a five-second pinch in the arm is a far lesser evil than the agony that is the flu.

Unfortunately, a dislike for needles isn’t the only thing standing in the way of a flu-free population.  There are a lot of nasty rumors and full-blown conspiracy theories surrounding the flu shot. Critics love to condemn the vaccine. But is what they’re saying even true?

To clear up any misconceptions, we’ve rounded up the five most common fallacies concerning the flu shot that we hear around this time of year.

I’ve already had the flu. It’s not like I can get it again, so why would I need to get vaccinated?

That’s kind of like saying “I got a sunburn last summer, so I am now protected against all future sunburns and therefore do not need to bother with sunscreen ever again.” It’s just not how the whole “avoiding the flu” thing works.

If you’ve had the flu, you’re familiar with the symptoms—aches and pains commonly associated with being hit by a bus, a fever so high you could melt an ice cube on your forehead (not that you would because you’re also freezing) and a headache so intense that your hair actually hurts. There’s sick, and then there’s the flu. It is not an experience to be repeated.

There are so many different strains of the flu flying around; it’s very unlikely that you would contract the same kind twice. The influenza virus is constantly mutating, and the CDC works throughout the year to develop a vaccine to fight every strain that pops up. It’s also important to remember that the immunity you receive from the vaccine will begin to decline after a year. In short, as long as the flu keeps mutating, you’re going to have to keep getting vaccinated.

Everyone just needs to get a grip with this whole flu frenzy.  It’s not that big of a deal, right?

WRONG. For a healthy, young person like yourself, contracting the flu might just be an inconvenience, or an excuse to lie on the couch. With some Tamiflu and a lot of chicken soup, you will be back on your feet in about a week.

Not everyone is so lucky. The term “flu” is tossed around a lot these days; it can be easy to forget that the virus has the potential to develop into pneumonia—a much more serious infection that remains a leading cause of death for the very old, very young and chronically ill.

And here’s the kicker—not everyone can get vaccinated against the flu; there are some contradictions that can make patients ineligible. For example, if you’re less than six months old—you’re excluded from the club. Oh, you’re allergic to eggs? You can’t sit with us, either.

This is where your decision to not get vaccinated turns from a personal health issue to a public one. You might not fear the flu and decide to brave the season (which starts in November and doesn’t end until April) with nothing but Vitamin C and some hand sanitizer. But doing so can put anyone that you come into contact with who can’t get vaccinated at higher risk for contracting the virus. So if your egg-allergic aunt is coming to visit with her three-month-old in tow, your non-immunized self can make it even easier for them to get sick.

Flu shot?  They might as well call it the death shot—it contains ingredients like formaldehyde and antifreeze, which are toxic when ingested.

Without getting into the nitty-gritty here, this is very misleading. Yes, the vaccine contains trace amounts of the chemicals that make up formaldehyde and antifreeze, but that’s just it—trace amounts.  As in very little. As in less than you are naturally exposed to on a day-to-day basis. There are also “trace amounts” of unpleasant ingredients in most of the food you consume daily—for example insect parts in chocolate, rodent hairs in peanut butter and fly eggs in pizza sauce. But most people probably aren’t going to let a few mouse hairs or ant legs stand in the way of their love for peanut butter cups.

Well my mom’s cousin’s husband’s brother actually contracted the worst flu of his life from getting the flu vaccine. I’m not going anywhere near that thing.

FALSE. Doctors are baffled as to where this tall tale turned up, but it seems to be a story as persistent as the virus itself. Flu season after flu season, physicians must reassure their patients that contracting the flu from the vaccine is a scientific impossibility.

This is how the whole thing works—your doctor will inject an inactive virus (inactive virus = virus that is not alive and, therefore, cannot make you sick) into your bloodstream. Your body, in turn, develops antibodies to fight the virus, rendering you immune to the strain you were vaccinated against (and your protests invalid).

What’s that you say? You got last year’s vaccine, only to wake up the next morning with suspiciously flu-like symptoms? Seeing as that couldn’t possibly be in your head, we are going to say you coincidentally contracted the common cold. Flu and cold season do overlap, you know.

Okay, okay. I’m still not going to get it. I hear it doesn’t work, anyway.

Once again—false. As mentioned earlier, the CDC puts a lot of time and resources into predicting which strain(s) of the flu will go viral each year. Every flu season, a new vaccine is released to protect us against the strains they are expecting to knock us off of our feet. You can consider yourself protected against every one you’re vaccinated for.

Every so often, one comes out of nowhere (for example, H1N1 2009) that takes us all (even the clairvoyants at the CDC) by surprise. No, the vaccine isn’t perfect. There is no way to 100 percent protect yourself against the flu, but getting vaccinated does significantly reduce your risk of contracting the disease—by more than 60 percent. Do you know how much your risk is reduced when you choose not to get the vaccine? Zero percent.

For those of you who still aren’t convinced, here’s something else to think about: every medical professional (you know, the people who have to take care of us when we get sick) is required to get an annual vaccination against the flu. Do you really think that the healthcare industry would waste time insisting that all of its employees get the shot if it didn’t actually work?