Should I get a flu shot?

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. A person may choose to (or not) get a flu shot based on a number of factors, including whether they are part of a population that is at greater risk, other medical conditions, personal beliefs, and much more. The answer to this question is ultimately up to you. Read on for some considerations to help guide you through your decision-making process. 

Influenza—more commonly known as the flu—is a highly contagious illness that’s caused by the influenza virus and affects the nose, throat, and lungs. Flu season typically occurs in the fall or winter months, reaching its peak around December to February. It’s often recommended to get the vaccination in September or October, since it usually takes about two weeks for the immune system to build up antibodies against the virus. Due to the flu’s tendency to undergo yearly changes, health care providers may also recommend annual vaccination to ensure ongoing protection. 

There are many reasons as to why you may or may not decide to get a flu vaccination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) highlights that certain populations are at increased risk of serious complications from the flu, including pneumonia, hospitalizations, and death, and should consider getting vaccinated first or earlier in the season. These populations can include: 

  • Individuals who are aged 50 years and older 
  • Those with chronic medical conditions (e.g., heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, asthma, kidney disease, chronic anemia or other blood disorder, endocrine disorder, immunosuppressed conditions, conditions that impact pulmonary function
  • Children between six months to four years old 
  • Individuals who are pregnant and up to two weeks postpartum (i.e., after delivery) during flu season 
  • Alaska Natives and American Indians 
  • Individuals with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or more 
  • Individuals between 6 months to 18 years of age who are prescribed aspirin or salicylate medications 
  • Health care workers, their household members, or other close contacts 
  • Employees of nursing homes, chronic care facilities, assisted living, and other similar residences 

Unfortunately, not everyone is eligible for the flu vaccine. Some people may develop serious side effects after getting the vaccination. You may consider speaking with a health care provider first to assess your risk factors, especially if you: 

  • Have a severe allergy to eggs or egg products 
  • Previously experienced an allergic reaction to the influenza vaccine 
  • Are currently feeling ill 
  • Currently have or suspect you may have COVID-19 
  • Have a history of Guillain-Barre syndrome, a paralytic illness in which the immune system targets the peripheral nerves 

Some individuals on the other hand, choose not to receive a flu vaccination for various reasons, such as personal beliefs, allergy to an ingredient in the vaccine, medical condition, and more. If you decide not to get vaccinated for the flu, you may consider checking in with your school or workplace, as they may require further paperwork or documentation. This paperwork may include signing a waiver acknowledging that you’ve declined the flu vaccination and that you understand the potential risks of your decision. 

If you do decide to get the flu vaccine, you may want to consider how you want to receive it. There are two types of flu vaccines available: the injection and the nasal spray. Injectable flu vaccines contain inactivated flu viruses, while the nasal spray contains a live, but weakened (attenuated) flu virus. Both types are incapable of causing the flu by themselves; instead, they stimulate the immune response to produce antibodies to the virus. To check if you’re eligible for either of these vaccination methods, consider checking out the CDC’s Who Should & Who Should NOT Get Vaccinated for more information. 

If you’re eligible to receive the vaccine, you may be wondering where you can get it. Typically, flu vaccines are available from a local health care provider during flu season. Many pharmacies and drugstores also offer flu vaccinations with no copayment, depending on your insurance coverage. Community health centers or public health departments may also organize local vaccination drives or clinics, which can be both drive-thru and walk-in. Upon getting the vaccine, you may experience side effects, such as mild swelling or soreness at the injection site, headaches, muscle aches, nausea, a mild fever, and fatigue, within a few days after getting the vaccine, which should resolve on their own. More serious, rarer reactions may include an allergic reaction or the development of Guillain-Barre syndrome. 

Regardless of whether you’ve chosen to get vaccinated, there are actions you can take to decrease your risk of contracting the flu, including: 

  • Avoiding close contact with people who are sick 
  • Staying home when you’re sick 
  • Covering your mouth and nose with a tissue (if you have one on hand) or with your elbow (if you don’t have a tissue) when coughing or sneezing 
  • Washing your hands with soap and water (scrubbing for at least 20 seconds) 
  • Avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth as much as possible 
  • Wearing a mask to reduce the spread of droplets 

For more information, you may consider checking out the CDC’s Influenza Information webpage or scheduling an appointment with a health care provider to discuss any questions or concerns you may have. Hopefully, with this information, you’ll be able to decide what works best for you!  

Last updated Aug 11, 2023
Originally published Dec 01, 1994

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