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The flu vaccine: myths and facts

By Medisys on October 01 2019 | News, Physical Health

Every year in Canada, the flu leads to upwards of 12,000 hospitalizations and about 3,500 deaths. While most people recover from the flu within about a week, others experience serious and potentially life-threatening complications. This is especially true for vulnerable populations including babies, young children, the elderly, pregnant women, and those with underlying health conditions.

The flu virus mutates and changes rapidly. That is why a new vaccine is tested and produced each year to protect against new circulating strains. Only about one third of Canadians receive the flu shot annually, while nearly two thirds of us opt to forgo it. Why do so many Canadians choose to skip this safe and potentially life-saving vaccine? Many simply don’t want to be inconvenienced by making a trip to their doctor’s office, while others forgo the vaccine because of myths they believe to be true. Let’s take a look at some of these myths in detail:


MYTH #1: THE FLU VACCINE IS NOT SAFE

Vaccinations are one of the most studied areas of modern medicine. Before the flu vaccine is approved for use each year it is extensively studied to ensure its safety and then is closely monitored after the public begins using it. The flu vaccine is proven to be safe in individuals over 6 months old, and is only contraindicated in very specific circumstances (eg. in individuals with life-threatening allergic reactions to an ingredient in the flu vaccine like eggs or gelatin, or those who have had Guillain- Barré Syndrome).

Serious adverse reactions to the flu vaccine are extremely rare. Specifically, there is an extremely low risk (about one per million doses) of developing Guillain-Barré Syndrome after receiving the flu vaccine. The most common side effects of the flu vaccine are mild tenderness (up to 64% of cases) and swelling around the injection site, and some individuals experience low-grade fever, discomfort, or muscle pains post-injection. These symptoms are more common in those receiving the flu vaccine for the first time.

 

 

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MYTH #2: THE FLU IS NOT A SERIOUS CONDITION

It is true that most otherwise-healthy people will recover from the flu within 7 to 10 days. Others, however, may experience more serious symptoms or complications such as sinus and ear infections; pneumonia; inflammation of the heart (myocarditis), brain (encephalitis) or muscle (myositis, rhabdomyolysis) tissues; and even multi-organ failure (eg. respiratory and kidney failure). Flu-related infection of the respiratory tract can also trigger an extreme inflammatory response in the body and can lead to sepsis, which is life-threatening. Also, the flu can make a chronic medical problem worse. For example, people with asthma may experience severe asthma attacks while they have the flu, and people with chronic heart disease may experience a worsening of this condition triggered by flu.

 

MYTH #3: IF YOU RECEIVED THE FLU VACCINE ONE YEAR YOU DON’T NEED IT AGAIN

The influenza virus changes (mutates) each year, which is why a new vaccine is created annually. Getting the current vaccination each year is necessary to obtain protection against the strains most likely to cause an outbreak in the current year.

 

MYTH #4: IF YOU’VE ALREADY HAD THE FLU THIS FLU SEASON YOU DON’T NEED THE FLU SHOT

More than 100 different viruses can cause flu-like symptoms. Unless a doctor took a nasal swab and the swab was analyzed to determine the strain of virus causing your illness, you can’t be sure that what you experienced (and thus have immunity to) was influenza. Also, even if you had the flu, presumably you were only infected by one strain and thus would still be susceptible to infection by additional flu strains. There are at least four strains circulating this 2019 flu season: H3N2, H1N1, and two different B strains. If you have been exposed to one flu strain, a flu shot will still offer protection against flu strains that you have not yet been exposed to.

 

MYTH #5: THE FLU VACCINE DOESN’T WORK

The flu vaccine is produced to offer protection against the most prevailing flu strains each year. A number of flu strains are circulating all the time, which is why people can still get the flu despite being vaccinated. Being vaccinated substantially improves the chance of being protected from the flu in the current year, but it isn’t a guarantee. More importantly, receiving the annual flu vaccination is extremely important and effective in preventing the spread of the virus to members of the community who are the most vulnerable.

 

MYTH #6: I WILL GET THE FLU FROM THE FLU VACCINE

The injectable flu vaccine does not contain the live flu virus and therefore it can’t cause the flu. Some individuals feel achy or slightly feverish after receiving the vaccine, but these mild symptoms are not the flu. It is important to understand that it takes about a week or two to receive full protection from the flu vaccine as your body builds up antibodies, and thus it is possible to contract the flu during the period immediately following vaccination if you are exposed. Some people believe that the flu shot caused their illness if they happen to get sick shortly after receiving the vaccine, but this is not the case.

 

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MYTH #7: IT IS BETTER TO BUILD UP IMMUNITY NATURALLY; GETTING THE ANNUAL FLU VACCINE WEAKENS THE IMMUNE SYSTEM

A study published in the March 1, 2017, issue of The Journal of Infectious Diseases investigated whether getting an annual vaccination against influenza (flu) can weaken your body’s natural ability to protect itself from the disease. This study concluded that receiving an annual flu vaccination does not weaken the immune system. On the contrary, the individuals who received the flu shot annually had a better immune response to influenza versus those who were vaccinated only once.

 

MYTH #8: THE FLU VACCINE IS UNSAFE FOR PREGNANT AND BREASTFEEDING WOMEN

The injectable flu vaccine is not only proven safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women, but especially important in pregnant women because their immune systems are weaker than usual.  Pregnant women should not get the intranasal (nasal spray) flu vaccine as it is a live vaccine. Pregnancy places extra demands  on the body which can increase the risk of complications from the flu. Pregnant women have higher rates of complications and flu-related hospitalizations than non-pregnant women.

The number of hospitalizations rises with increasing length of pregnancy after the first trimester. Women of advanced maternal age and women who are carrying multiple fetuses are at especially high risk for increased complications from the flu. If you are expected to deliver during the flu season, getting the flu vaccine means that antibodies are passed on to the baby during pregnancy (and in breast milk while breastfeeding) protecting both mother and infant.


The annual flu shot provides the best protection against seasonal influenza. Here are some tips to further protect yourself:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water;
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth as germs spread this way;
  • Sneeze into your arm or sleeve;
  • After wiping or blowing your nose with a tissue, wash your hands; and
  • Stay home and avoid crowds if you feel sick.

 

This fall, the flu vaccine is your best shot!

 

Sources:
https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/diseases/flu-influenza.html
https://www.cdc.gov/flu/index.htm
https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/82-624-x/2015001/article/14218-eng.htm
https://www.fraserhealth.ca/health-topics-a-to-z/immunizations/immunization-basics/facts-vs-myths#.XP5nC4hKiUk
https://www.publichealth.org/public-awareness/understanding-vaccines/vaccine-mythsdebunked/
https://www.who.int/influenza/spotlight/5-myths-about-the-flu-vaccine
https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/16/ask-well-do-i-need-a-flu-shot-if-ive-had-the-flu/
https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/10-flu-myths