Should You Get a Flu Shot?
Flu season is around the corner and you may have started to see reminders from your health plan, employer or neighborhood pharmacy that it’s time to get your annual flu shot.
The CDC recommends that everyone over the age of six months receive the influenza vaccine annually, by the end of October for optimum protection. However, some medical experts disagree that everyone needs it.
This can become a pretty heated topic in the health community, with some strong arguments for either case. This article is not intended to sway you one way or the other, but simply to provide information for you to make your own choice.
How vaccines work
Vaccines help develop immunity by imitating an infection: You’re injected with an inactivated virus, triggering your body to develop antibodies to it and thereby increasing your immune system’s response time should it see the same (active) virus again. The antibodies take about two weeks to develop after vaccination, which is why vaccination is encouraged before the brunt of flu season (December-February, typically). The flu virus evolves quickly, so each year health officials develop the annual vaccine with the strains they expect to be in circulation that flu season.
The flu vaccine does not prevent you from getting the flu. Its intention is to lessen the effects of the flu if you do happen to catch it.
Vaccine effectiveness can vary year to year, by type used, and among different age and risk groups.
Reasons to get the flu shot
With or without a flu shot, everyone is susceptible to getting the flu. However, certain populations are especially at risk for catching it or experiencing complications from it: people with compromised immunity (HIV, chemo treatment, autoimmune disease), chronic asthma or lung disease, children, pregnant women, older adults, and healthcare workers.
Because the vaccine can lessen the effects and complications of the flu, it’s generally recommended that anyone with compromised immunity (or in close contact with someone with compromised immunity) get the flu shot. One of the biggest arguments supporting flu vaccines in healthy adults is herd immunity: protecting vulnerable populations by reducing opportunities for transmission.
Influenza spreads primarily through droplets in the air when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks. Flu symptoms begin about 1-4 days after the virus enters a person’s body, meaning you can pass it on to others before even knowing you’re sick. In theory, the flu shot should reduce the severity and duration of your illness (should you get it)—thereby reducing the chances of transmitting it to others as well.
Reasons not to get the flu shot
Typically, only about 40% of American adults receive the flu vaccine each year.
Some people are advised to avoid the vaccine: anyone with prior severe reactions to it, and anyone allergic to eggs (most flu vaccines are grown in eggs and contain egg protein).
Some people choose not to get the flu shot due to concern of its side effects: It’s not uncommon to develop mild flu-like symptoms (achy muscles, fatigue, fever, headache, nausea) within a few days of receiving the vaccine. A small number of people develop more severe symptoms shortly after receiving it. Additionally, some doctors recommend not getting the flu shot while pregnant due to limited study on its effects in utero. Depending on the version, the vaccine may contain additives such as aluminum, mercury and formaldehyde—known neurotoxins that are best avoided, especially during pregnancy.
Another reason some people pass on the vaccine is uncertainty regarding its effectiveness “preventing” the flu. Many of the studies regarding the health benefits of the flu vaccine have been funded by companies involved in selling the vaccine, and independent academic studies tend to show less health benefit. For example, a broad meta review shows that getting the flu vaccine has only a small protective effect on getting the flu, and little to no appreciable effect on hospitalizations or missed days of work from the flu. (From a herd immunity perspective, this review also shows that 71 people need to be vaccinated to avoid one case of influenza.) Last year’s flu shot was about 40% effective, according to the CDC.
Ultimately, whether or not to get a flu shot is a personal decision that should be made with your doctor, based on your particular health needs.
Flu season wellness tips
Whether or not you receive the vaccine, you can reduce your chances of getting and/or transmitting the flu by:
Washing your hands regularly with soap and water, especially after spending time in public places. (Or, using natural hand sanitizer as needed.)
Being aware of your overall health—stress, lack of sleep, dehydration and a nutrient-poor diet can all lower an otherwise healthy immune system and make you more susceptible to illness.
Maintaining healthy gut flora: Your gut is the first line of defense in your immune system! Develop healthy gut bacteria with probiotics and a prebiotic-rich diet full of veggies and leafy greens.
Getting enough vitamin D, which is essential for proper immune function. Get tested to know your levels, and if you’re low, incorporate more vitamin D-rich foods into your diet (fatty fish like salmon, tuna, sardines; pasture-raised eggs; mushrooms).
Staying home and resting if you do get the flu. Not only will proper rest help you get better faster, but it will decrease your chances of sharing the virus while you’re contagious.
FOUR WELLNESS TIP
Whichever your choice regarding the vaccine, follow the lifestyle tips above to protect yourself and others from getting the flu.
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