So if you didn’t know, I am currently running a Flu Shot FAQ Reel Series on Instagram! Every day for about 3 weeks I will be debunking a flu shot myth or answering a flu shot question using facts + information from credible and reliable sources. I chose reels to do this because they’re short and lots of people watch them (vs. not everyone will take the time to read a lengthy blog post).
*Disclaimer: This blog is intended for informational purposes only. The information on this blog should not be used as a substitute to medical advice or medical treatment. As always, your Primary Care Provider, a doctor, or another health professional is your best resource for specific questions and medical advice. If you believe you or a loved one are experiencing a medical emergency, please contact 911.*
This week I tackle five whole questions! They are below, with their associated reel video, as well as some additional links/sources and more in-depth information – for those of you who do like reading blog posts!
Next week will bring more questions. Remember – no FAQ on weekends! Follow me on Instagram to see them more frequently, and let me know if you like this!
Question: Why do I need to get the flu shot annually?
People are often concerned about why they need to get a flu shot annually, when other vaccinations are only needed every so often (like the tetanus combination shot, which you need to get ~every 10 years – or as needed) or only a few times as a child.
The flu shot is given annually for two reasons:
1) The vaccine is updated each year to reflect the current, most common strains circulating. I will talk about the selection process more in the next question. I really like this handout, explaining why this is done.
2) Immunity decreases over time – this happens with other vaccines too, but not always as quickly. Combined with point #1, it is advised to get a flu shot every year to maintain the best protection possible.
Question: How do they choose the strains to include in the vaccine each year?
People are often concerned that if the World Health Organization/each country is deciding on the strains in February, they are not reflective of the strains circulating in October (the upcoming flu season).
The selection process is a bit outside my realm of knowledge, however I can try my best to answer it. I will direct you to the CDC’s pages on how the flu vaccine is composed, and its overall effectiveness, for more detailed information.
Each year in February, the WHO sits down and looks at current data (such as reports from different countries, lab results, and studies) to determine the current circulating strains and what they predict will be circulating in the upcoming flu season. They give their recommendations to each country, and then they decide for themselves which strains are included in their regions.
Usually, if a flu strain is common in February, it will still be one of the more common strains the following flu season. However, sometimes this isn’t the case, and the flu vaccine isn’t as effective as a result (because it contains strains that aren’t really circulating anymore, so everyone has antibodies against the wrong strains and not against say, the one that IS going around that year). The years when it is well matched though, there is a definite benefit to receiving the flu vaccine.
How effective the vaccine each year depends on the above, but also the person receiving the vaccine. Age, current health status, and other factors can impact how well the vaccine works for you. Overall, the consensus is that the more people who receive the flu shot, the better for overall health. For more information on that, check out the CDC’s page on the burden of the flu.
Question: Why do I feel crappy after I get the flu shot?
This question often ties in with the myth that the flu vaccine gives you influenza – which it does not. What you receive in the flu vaccine is an inactivated (killed) form of the virus or in regards to the (past) nasal formulation, a weakened form of the virus (which would still not give you the flu, as it cannot infect the lungs). Some other vaccines are made with only a part of a virus – like a protein – which again, can’t give you the illness. I will talk a little bit more about how vaccines work in the next question.
When it comes to your reaction, everybody reacts differently to vaccines. I can tell you from experience that the flu shot is not the only vaccine to make you potentially feel a bit crummy after, again depending on the person. The shingles shot is also a common culprit for this issue.
Minor side effects after vaccines are common. Arm soreness is a big one, however sometimes a headache, muscle ache or even a low-grade fever can occur. These are generally the reactions listed in every vaccine booklet based on trial results and studies. If you feel kind of achy and tired after the flu shot, you may just be having some side effects from it.
If you feel concerned and genuinely feel unwell, contact your care provider or seek emergency care if needed. Your care provider or the professional administering your vaccine should discuss with you possible side effects to expect (and what would be considered abnormal).
Question: Does the flu shot weaken your immune system?
No. Let me break this down.
First of all – you have to understand how the immune system works.
When you get sick with an illness, like influenza, your body recognizes the virus (or whatever it may be) as foreign – aka not what it usually sees in your body. The part it recognizes is called an antigen. Once recognized as an invader, the body responds by having a type of white blood cell called B lymphocytes, make antibodies against the antigen. Antibodies are small proteins that can attach to the specific antigen they are made for – but they don’t destroy it. They act as markers for another type of white blood cell, a T cell, to come destroy the antigen. A bunch of other cells come to help as well – but this is beyond the scope of this post (and I’m also not an expert).
So when you get sick this will happen – however, it is not better to get sick with an illness because that means you have to be uhh.. sick with the illness. That may come with more than just “mild” symptoms, especially in the case of the flu. It could mean severe complications, hospitalization, or even death.
The flu shot illicits the same response but without you getting sick, because the antigen being introduced in the vaccine is inactive. It is literally impossible for you to get sick because the antigen is killed – it can’t cause disease (which I talked about in the response above).
Second – lets look at the flu shot specifically, in regards to long term use and use in children.
A study in the Journal of Infectious Diseases from 2017 found that, continuous immunization against influenza (meaning, annually) actually increased the recipients immune responses, especially compared to those who had only received it once.
In regards to kids specifically – no you are not overloading their systems. They can handle a lot more than we give them credit for and vaccines help to build immunity not destroy it. The immune response a child mounts to a vaccine is only small when compared to their total capability – think of all the things they put to their mouth, touch, lick… daily. In the environment. These daily exposures are much higher than a vaccine.
I found a fun quote – “worrying about this is like worrying about a thimble of water getting you wet when you are swimming in the ocean”. Love it.
Question: Is there any way I can make the shot hurt less?
There are a few steps you can take for yourself or your child, to help reduce poke pain. I talked about preparing for vaccine appointments more in-depth in this post, which also discussed pain reduction techniques.
In a quick summary:
- Be informed – about where the shot is administered so you can prepare yourself (or your child) for the location. Ask questions – the nurse or care provider is there to help you!
- Distract, distract, distract. It will be different depending on age – but a little video on Youtube, bubbles, a dancing dinosaur toy, or just deep breathing & guided imagery can help reduce pain.
- Breastfeed your baby or use a pacifier (if applicable).
- Use an anesthetic cream or numbing patch in advance – they do seem to reduce distress!
- Do not lie to your child (or yourself) – it feels like a pinch! Don’t tell them it “doesn’t hurt at all” because that is just setting them up with false expectations. It will probably sting or pinch a bit – be realistic and honest. It makes for a better experience for everyone.
- Relax your arm! I have to remind so many people to do this but it’s so important. Take a deep breath in & out and just ahhhh… relax!
I have one more week worth of Flu FAQ! Stay tuned for the final post next Friday at 12 pm EST.