Should I get a flu shot?

Originally Published: December 1, 1994 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: September 6, 2013
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Dear Alice,

Since winter is approaching soon and it is the time for sniffles and sneezing, what do you think about getting a FLU SHOT as an ounce of prevention?

— Achoo, cough, cough

Dear Achoo, cough, cough,

To get the shot or not, that is the question… The flu season typically starts in October, with the peak months being January and February. You can get the flu vaccine anytime during the flu season. For most people the benefits of getting a flu shot far outweigh the concerns. Plus, you can't get the flu from the flu shot!

There are two types of flu vaccines: the injection and the nasal spray. Injectable flu vaccines usually contain killed strains of types A and B flu virus, and help your body to provide immunity to these two common strains of the flu. The nasal spray vaccine contains a live, but weakened version of the same strains. Several clinical studies have shown that the annual flu vaccine is 70 to 90 percent effective against influenza. What this means is that while a person reduces her or his individual risk of getting the flu after having received the flu vaccine for that year, it is still possible to get sick from the illness. Any immunity from these vaccines is short-lived, however, and with the influenza virus changing each year, vaccination must be repeated annually to continue protection. Whatever protection you do get doesn't kick in until about two weeks after getting the vaccine.

Considering the flu vaccine may be in limited supply in some years, who is given priority for receiving the vaccine early in the flu season? The following groups of people are recommended to get the flu vaccine in October and November each year since they are at increased risk for serious complications from the flu, including pneumonia, hospitalizations, and death:

  • Individuals who are aged 50 years and older
  • Persons with chronic medical conditions (such as heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, asthma, kidney disease, chronic anemia or other blood disorder, endocrine disorder, immunosuppressed conditions, and other problems that restrict pulmonary function)
  • Children 6 months to 5 years old
  • Pregnant women who will be in the second or third trimester of pregnancy during the flu season
  • Anyone 6 months to 18 years of age who is on long-term aspirin therapy

In addition, health care workers, household members or other close contacts, and employees of nursing homes, chronic care facilities, assisted living, and other residences are urged to get the vaccine because their close contact with individuals at risk may cause inadvertent transmission of the influenza virus.

Not everyone is eligible for the influenza vaccine because they may develop serious side effects from getting it. If you have any of the conditions below, consult with a health care provider first:

  • Severe allergy to eggs or egg products
  • Previous allergic reaction to the influenza vaccine
  • Moderate to severe illness with fever (wait until the illness improves)
  • History of Guillain-Barre Syndrome

If you do get the flu vaccine, the most common side effect is some mild swelling, redness, and soreness around the area of the injection, which can last 1 to 2 days. You may also feel a little achy, with general malaise, fever, and muscle pain lasting 1 to 2 days. Despite these possible side-effects, a flu shot is much less dreary than getting a full-fledged case of the flu. Other less likely adverse effects are allergic reactions and the development of Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare paralytic illness, but this disease is extremely uncommon.

Each year Columbia Health will have a supply of injectable influenza vaccine for eligible Columbia students, faculty, and staff. This free service will be provided on a first-come, first-served basis at various flu fairs. Or, you can call 212-854-7426 or log on to Open Communicator to schedule a vaccination appointment if you are on the Morningside campus. If you are on the CUMC campus, call 212-305-3400 for more information on flu vaccinations. You can also check the Columbia Health flu website for updates or to subscribe to the e-mail update list.

For more information, you can check out the following resources:

Best of luck as you consider your inoculation options this season!

Alice