Flu shot FAQs: Myths and facts

By: Wendell Hoffman, MD .

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As a physician and specialist in infectious disease, each fall I prepare and advocate for all of my patients and colleagues to get a flu vaccine.

And every year, there’s some skepticism or misconceptions that I try to dispel.

Here are some commonly asked questions about influenza and the flu vaccine that you may have, too:

Q: If I haven’t gotten the flu before, do I need to get a vaccine? Why?

A: Yes, absolutely—for the same reason you put your seatbelt on every time you drive, even if you haven’t had an accident.

Q: The flu season can go until late spring—should I wait to get my vaccine?

A: No, you should get your vaccine as soon as they’re available. The flu season begins in October, and some years we see early peaks in November and December.

The earlier you’re vaccinated, the better chance you’ll have of being protected from the virus throughout the year.

As with any vaccine, it will take about two weeks to reach maximum antibody response.

Q: If I got a flu shot last year, do I need to get one this year, too?

A: Yes. There are constant changes in the makeup of the influenza virus, so getting vaccinated every year is highly advised.

Q: Is it possible to get the flu after getting the vaccine?

A: Not all strains of the flu are in the vaccine, so there’s still a chance you may contract influenza even if you’ve been vaccinated.

However, we shouldn’t let perfect get in the way of good. Vaccination isn’t solely about prevention. There’s a generally accepted notion that vaccination may modify the severity of the flu.

This is particularly important for people who are at an increased risk for complications of the flu, including those who are very young, very old, overweight or immunocompromised. The flu is a potential killer to those at risk for complications.

Q: Are there side effects or risks of getting a flu shot?

A: There are some minimal possible side effects of a sore arm, mild achiness, perhaps very low-grade fever.

You can’t get the flu from the flu vaccine — just like you can’t get tetanus from a tetanus vaccine or hepatitis from a hepatitis vaccine. The vaccines in use this year are not live strains, so it is biologically impossible to get the flu from the flu vaccine.

Also, there is absolutely no evidence that autism risk is tied to the flu vaccine, or any vaccine.

Q: I’m generally healthy and have gotten over the flu before—do I still need a vaccine?

A: Yes. There are multiple strains of influenza in circulation, and just because there was recovery from one strain one year does not mean that future bouts of flu will not be catastrophic.

Influenza is a natural enemy of both healthy and not-so-healthy individuals. Anyone can come down with severe illness because of the flu, which may lead to life-threatening consequences such as pneumococcal and staphylococcal pneumonia.

Q: I’m pregnant—should I get a flu shot?

A: Absolutely. Pregnancy has been identified as its own category of risk for complications.

Q: I’m breastfeeding—should I get a flu shot?

A: Absolutely. It will help prevent the flu from being transmitted to your very vulnerable young child.

Q: What if I have other questions about influenza or getting vaccinated?

A: Talk to your primary care doctor about any concerns you have. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website also has a wealth of information.

Q: What does the flu vaccine cost? Where can I get it?

A: Most insurance plans cover the cost of the flu vaccine, which is widely available at physician offices, pharmacies and schools.

Get vaccinated as soon as possible—it could save your life, and help protect the people you love.