All of your questions about getting a flu shot answered — by a doctor

Dr. Alok Patel is In The Know’s wellness contributor. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter for more.

The coronavirus vaccine may be a highly anticipated blockbuster movie, but that doesn’t exactly make the flu shot a made-for-TV B movie. I’m proud of all the teens and young adults I’ve seen spread the word about the unique importance of the flu shot this year. I metaphorically raise my fist in solitude every time I see a flu shot selfie on Instagram.

The flu shot is a tried-and-true hero, and getting one should be at the top of everyone’s winter “public health to-do list.” If you haven’t already gotten your flu shot, it’s not too late — at all. 

During the 2019-2020 flu season, vaccinations prevented roughly 7.5 million illnesses, 3.7 million medical visits, over 100,000 hospitalizations and about 6,300 deaths. All those prevented doctors’ visits and hospitalizations equal millions of dollars saved and a much less burdened healthcare system.

Nonetheless, I could sing sonnets about the flu shot all day and people would still send me questions such as: Does it work? Do I really need it? Isn’t it a big pharma conspiracy theory to line doctors’ pockets with cash?

(The answers are yes, yes and nope.)

With that being said, below, I’ll share and respond to a few high-yield comments and questions I frequently receive about the flu shot.

“Won’t this be a really light flu season because we’re wearing masks and staying home?”

Fair question. This may even explain why the Southern Hemisphere had a lighter flu season this year. Common sense says if people are wearing masks, distancing themselves and washing their hands, this can curb the spread of not only SARS-CoV2, but also of other respiratory viruses, as well, such as influenza. However, these methods are not perfect (as evidenced by the massive spikes in coronavirus cases). There are no guarantees and a “twindemic” would be catastrophic.

“How does the vaccine even work?”

Consider the flu shot to be a wanted poster shown to your body’s sheriff. The shot is usually a weakened or killed version of the actual flu virus. Your immune system gets enough of a glimpse of the virus through the shot to make antibodies. Then, after about two weeks, your body has antibodies ready to rumble should you encounter the wanted suspect — the flu virus.

Getting a flu shot every year is annoying.”

What’s truly annoying is that the flu virus’ genetic material slowly changes over time. In order to stay one step ahead, over 100 national influenza centers in over 100 countries keep a very close eye on global flu cases and strains, in both the Southern and Northern Hemisphere.

Then, with the information in hand, a seasonal flu vaccine is designed to protect against the influenza strains which are most likely to spread. 

Now, take a minute and appreciate this amazing, global scientific feat.

“I’ve never gotten the flu, so I’m not going to get the shot.”

This is akin to saying, “I’ve never had an issue driving while sleepy, so I’m just going to continue driving while sleepy.” You’re putting yourself and others at risk. All it takes is one bad case of influenza to end the streak of luck for you or a family member.

Aside from rare exceptions, everyone above the age of six months should get the seasonal flu shot. This is especially important for the elderly, young children, pregnant women and others with underlying medical conditions. 

“I got the shot and still got the flu last year.”

The flu shot isn’t 100 percent effective. It’s possible to get the flu shot and still get the flu. You could even catch the flu in the window between getting the shot and building antibodies. Here’s an important note: Even if it’s not a perfect shield, the flu shot will reduce your chance of a severe flu-related illness.

Also, please help me finally put a widespread myth to rest: The flu shot itself cannot and will not give you the flu. The flu vaccine is, in essence, vaccine parts. Imagine if you laid out a disassembled car in a garage. The parts would give you plenty of information, but the car would not be able to magically assemble itself. Similarly, the viral parts cannot cause the flu.

“I’ve heard about really crazy neurologic side effects!”

There are side effects such as a sore arm, headache, fever or muscle aches, but these usually go away after a day or so. 

There are rare reports of a neurologic condition, known as Guillain-Barre Syndrome, being associated with the flu shot. The risk is about one for every one to two million flu shots -— so rare it may not in fact be associated at all.

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In short, if you haven’t already, be a public health defender and get your flu shot. In doing so, you’re doing your part to protect yourself, your family and our already-strained healthcare system.

Just remember to get your information from a reputable source. There’s internet fear-mongering and there are myths — and then there’s science. The science is clear: The flu shot works and saves lives.

Now go forth and tag me on all your #FluShotSelfies, so I can slow clap to each and every one of you.

If you enjoyed this article, check out Dr. Alok Patel’s rundown of everything you need to know about health insurance.

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