Flu Shot Myths Debunked: Hey Holdouts, Care to Reconsider?

An infectious disease specialist busts common flu shot myths held about the vaccine.

flu shot myths

Many people buy into flu shot myths and refuse to get the vaccine each year. Are you one of them? (Photo: Stockbyte/Getty Images)

It's October, the time of year you bravely offer up your arm (or nose) for your annual influenza vaccination, whether by shot or nasal spray.

If you're like most, you are likely coping with the seasonal foot-draggers—those friends, family members or coworkers who announce: "The flu vaccine? Me? No, never."

Of course, that foot-dragging ups the odds that you'll soon be sitting by, living with, or taking care of a feverish, fatigued, whiny person with the flu.

MORE: The Most Vulnerable Pay a High Price for Flu Infection

Telling them that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the vaccine for everyone six months or older is not likely to be persuasive.

So, TakePart took the usual spate of excuses to Dr. Aaron Glatt, an infectious disease specialist and spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, to see what he had to say. He's heard nearly all the flu shot myths and arguments against getting vaccinated and he has a response for every one. 

Glatt, executive vice-president at Mercy Medical Center in Rockville Center, New York, tackled the six most common excuses, with backup from the CDC. 

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Flu Shot Myths,  #1: The flu vaccine isn't very effective.

"It's not perfect, but it works an awful lot better than not getting the vaccine," Glatt says. Each year, the vaccine is matched up, as best as possible, to the influenza viruses that experts predict will be most common during the coming flu season.

Their predictions aren't faultless.

Overall, according to the CDC, the vaccine works better in young, healthy adults and older children. It may not be as effective in some older people and those who have weaker immune systems due to issues such as chronic illnesses.

Glatt says it's difficult to put an exact percentage on effectiveness—there are too many variables in people and in flu seasons.

However, the CDC takes a stab at it: The flu vaccine was about 60 percent effective for all age groups combined in the 2010-2011 season. In a study of the flu vaccine in kids, researchers found it protected up to nine out of 10 who got vaccinated.

Flu Shot Myths, #2: The vaccine itself gave me the flu once. Never again.

"Impossible," Glatt says.

More likely, a person was harboring some bug before the shot and was stricken with a flu-like illness or the common cold, he says.

Side effects can happen, of course. The most common are soreness, redness or swelling at the shot site, a low-grade fever, or body aches. 

Serious allergic reactions are very rare, the CDC says. If you have symptoms such as a rapid heartbeat, breathing problems or wheezing within a few hours after the vaccination, get medical help.

MORE: Non-Medical Vaccination Exemption Rates Are Growing

Flu Shot Myths, #3: The flu vaccine, like others, can cause serious problems such as autism.

Not a shred of evidence for this, Glatt says. He points to the recent discrediting of research linking the measles vaccine to autism in children as one proof of vaccines' overall safety.

Flu Shot Myths, #4: I have a strong immune system. I repel viruses and bacteria of all kinds.

A strong immune system is no guarantee that a virulent influenza virus won't overpower it, Glatt says.

Another point: "Most people don't really know how good their immune system is. It needs to be stressed that this is a potentially fatal disease. It's more likely to affect sicker people in a more serious way." But not always, he adds.

MORE: FDA Announces this Year's Flu Vaccine

Flu Shot Myths,  #5: I don't care if I get sick. I have plenty of sick days. I can use the time to catch up on television/reading/Facebook/old movies.

Or those online chats with Narcissists 'R' Us?

Glatt asks: "What about your spouse, kids, and elderly parents?" Do you really want to spread that virus around?

Flu Shot Myths,  #6: I'm allergic to eggs. I shouldn't get the vaccine.

Maybe.

The CDC, historically, has recommended that those with an egg allergy skip the vaccine, as U.S. vaccines are made with egg-based processes.

However, in 2011, the CDC said those who have only hives as a reaction to eggs may be able to get the vaccine if they are closely monitored.

More recent research suggests that some people with egg allergies may be able to get the vaccine. In a study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, researchers followed more than 300 people with egg alleriges, most of them chiildren, who got the flu shot over five years. Some had even had severe reactions to eggs in the past.

They found none had a serious reaction to the flu vaccine which, it seems, contains only tiny amounts of egg protein. A small percentage of people had itchy skin or hives, considered minor reactions. 

If you have had problems with an egg allergy, ask your doctor about the flu vaccine. The CDC recommends those with more severe reactions should consult a specialist.

The rest of you? You know what to do.

So after debunking these flu shot myths, are you going to get your flu shot? Let us know in the comments.

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