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Should You Get a Flu Shot? What You Need to Know

A doctor's case for why you shouldn't skip the shot

Published on: November 08, 2017

Kid getting a shot

It’s that time of year again: Flu season!

But should get the flu shot?

It's a difficult decision for any parent. To help you with your decision, I spoke with Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious diseases specialist at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Here's his take on what you need to know about the flu.

Flu season is an annual event around the world.

The flu is not a cold. The flu, also known as the influenza virus, is a possibly life-threatening respiratory virus. It’s the “most severe of the respiratory viruses” affecting people today, says Dr. Schaffner. It can even be deadly; the flu causes between 250,000 and 500,000 deaths worldwide per year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Because the influenza virus evolves, so must the vaccine.

"The flu virus has the capacity to mutate and change sometimes from year to year," explains Dr. Schaffner. And so vaccines have to adapt to the changes in the virus.

Each year you get a flu shot, you receive a different vaccination than the year before. Because the flu is also a global virus, two vaccines are developed each year — one for each hemisphere.

Everyone who reads this should get vaccinated for the flu.

Everyone older than 6 months should receive a flu shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This includes pregnant women; not only will getting the vaccination protect them from the flu and more serious complications like pneumonia, but it'll also protect an infant from the virus for the first six months of life after birth.

There are very few people who shouldn't get the vaccination: infants and people with Guillain-Barré syndrome. "If you previously had Guillain-Barré syndrome within six weeks of getting the flu vaccine, you probably shouldn't get [the] flu vaccine this time," says Dr. Schaffner.

The flu vaccine cannot give you the flu.

"The flu vaccine is not the complete virus. It’s broken up pieces of the virus," says Dr. Schaffner. "It can’t reconstitute itself and give you the flu.”

Just because you come down with a cold or experience flu-like symptoms the same week that you received your flu vaccination, doesn't mean that you contracted the flu. "You have to remember that not everything that makes us cold, cough and sneeze, is the flu."

Get it to protect others.

The flu most seriously affects "people who are 65 and older and people who have underlying illnesses including heart disease, lung disease, diabetes and the like who [have suppressed immune systems]," says Dr. Schaffner. 

Even if you're not older than 65 or have one of the listed conditions, you should still get a flu shot. It's protecting others.

"You don't want to give a [flu] infection to someone else who’s going to get severely ill," says Dr. Schaffner. "You’re trying to provide a level of community protection."

No nasal spray option this year. 

The nasal spray version of the flu vaccination won't be offered this year as it was deemed less effective than the traditional shot. However, the company that produces the spray is “working hard to figure out scientifically what went awry,” says Dr. Schaffner. 

Of course, you may still get the flu even if you get the vaccine. An effective flu vaccination protects young and healthy individuals up to 70 percent of the time and older adults up to 50 percent. "What that doesn't tell you is that you often get partial protection," says Dr. Schaffner. "Even if you get the flu, you are much more likely to have a milder case.” Partial protection is always better than no protection.

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