A Vanderbilt expert sheds light on the myths surrounding the flu shot, and explains why there’s really no excuse not to get yours this year.
This flu season — like so many 2020 milestones — is largely unprecedented.
“There will be a duel season — a ‘twindemic,’ someone called it,” said infectious disease expert William Schaffner, M.D., a professor of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “Therefore, it’s more important than ever that we all get ourselves vaccinated against influenza.”
Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist, notes that there are both personal and community reasons to get a flu shot. On the personal side, the reasons are obvious: You’ll be protecting yourself and your family from a virus that can cause serious illness. On the community side, you’ll be protecting those who are most vulnerable — and also helping to ease the burden on our medical system, which is stretched thin due to COVID-19.
Here, Schaffner addresses several misconceptions people might have regarding vaccinations — especially this year, due to the “twindemic” we’re facing together.
Myth: The flu vaccine isn’t very effective.
Reality: “A lot of people say, ‘It’s not that great of a vaccine. Why should I bother getting it?’” Schaffner said. “Let’s all acknowledge that it’s a good, but not great vaccine — but it is a good vaccine. And as a good vaccine, it prevents many thousands of infections each year. Here’s what’s underappreciated: Suppose you get vaccinated, and then you genuinely do get the flu a month later. What people don’t understand is that, having been vaccinated, your flu illness is going to be less severe. You’re much less likely to seek medical care, go to the emergency room or be admitted to the hospital. And frankly, you’re much less likely to die. What’s wrong with that?”
Myth: You can get the flu from the flu shot.
Reality: “We give this vaccine in the multi-millions of doses each year around the world,” Schaffner said. “You cannot — and let me say this again — you cannot get flu from the flu vaccine. That’s baloney. You will get a bit of a sore arm, that’s true, and a few people might get a degree of fever, but that’s not flu — that’s just your body working on the vaccine, starting to make your protection.”
Myth: Only children and the elderly need flu shots.
Reality: “The recommendations couldn’t be simpler: If you’re older than 6 months of age, you should be vaccinated,” Schaffner said. “But let’s put some emphasis on older people; people with any underlying chronic illness like lung disease, diabetes, heart disease; and if you’re pregnant. That protects you and protects your baby until they can get vaccinated at 6 months old.”
But even if you’re not at risk, you should still do your part to keep those who are at risk safe. “By getting vaccinated against flu, our ability to be a ‘dreader spreader’ — someone who transmits the virus to others — is substantially diminished,” Schaffner said.
Myth: There’s no safe way to get a flu shot during the pandemic.
Reality: “We can’t do vaccines through telemedicine, obviously, so you have to show up and roll up your sleeves,” Schaffner said. “The trick is to do it quickly. You could go to your pharmacy, or you could call your provider and see if they have a separate quick flu clinic, perhaps early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Some of the usual ways we get vaccinated are not going to be as readily available, with so many of us working and learning at home. So we’re all going to have to take more individual responsibility for ourselves and for our families, and do a little planning ahead.”
Myth: You don’t need a flu shot if you’re social distancing.
Reality: “The truth is you need to do both, because A plus B gives you better protection,” Schaffner said. “And I’ll give you applause and thanks for doing both, because that will indeed protect against flu as well as COVID-19.”