Each year, up to 11 percent of people in the United States will get the influenza (aka flu), per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Getting your flu vaccine annually can protect you from this potentially serious viral disease — and it can also protect the people around you.
While recent flu seasons have been mild — most likely because of changed behaviors (think: wearing masks) due to COVID-19 — the 2022-2023 flu season is likely to be more severe, based on the experience in Australia, where flu strikes earlier, according to the Mayo Clinic. Plus, there could be a "robust return of flu" due to less population immunity and lower recent vaccination rates, per the CDC.
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A flu vaccine is a simple way to avoid the flu. And yet, people often don't get their annual flu shot. That could be due to a lot of inaccurate beliefs about this vaccine. Here, three doctors share the most common myths they encounter about the flu vaccine, and set the record straight.
Flu Vaccine Myths, Debunked
Don't be misled by one of the following myths:
Myth 1: The Flu Isn't That Serious
Flu statistics show each year in the U.S., about 25 million people are sickened by flu, and between 12,000 and 52,000 people have died from the virus each year since 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
People who are especially vulnerable to serious complications from the flu include those age 65 and older; people with chronic medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease; pregnant women; and children under the age of 5.
"The disease can be life-threatening, regardless of age," says Bilal Naseer, MD, an infectious disease specialist and critical care doctor at CommonSpirit Health in Carmichael, California. "It is very important for everybody to get the vaccine and not have this false sense of security. It is extremely preventable. And it hurts me every year when I see somebody very young suffering from it in my ICU."
When Should You Get Your Flu Shot? And Where Can You Get It?
Aim to get vaccinated before the end of October each year, according to the CDC. That way, you'll be protected before the flu arrives in your community.
But if you're reading this, and it's after October — or, if flu is already spreading where you live — it's not too late. Flu cases often peak in February, but can continue through the springtime, per the CDC.
As to where to get your flu shot, they're widely available through health care providers, health departments and pharmacies. If you have health insurance, there's likely no cost for you to get vaccinated.
Myth 2: I’ve Never Had the Flu, So I Must Be Immune to It
Just because you don't recall having flu symptoms doesn't mean you've never had the flu, Dr. Naseer says. Many times people are asymptomatic or have very mild symptoms. Still, "they are very capable of transmitting to others, which is another really important reason to get the influenza vaccine."
Philip Robinson, MD, medical director of infection prevention at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach, California, is far more blunt in addressing this myth: "I have never been in an automobile accident, but I still wear my seatbelt just in case. I have seen patients who 'never get the flu' and end up in an intensive care unit on a breathing machine fighting for their lives. This could have been prevented with the vaccine."
Myth 3: The Flu Vaccine Will Give Me the Flu
Side effects of the flu vaccine are generally minor, per the CDC, and may include soreness and mild swelling where a shot was given, headache, fever, muscle aches, nausea and fatigue.
Now this may sound like getting the flu, but it's merely your immune system at work, learning how to mount a defense against the flu, Dr. Naseer says. Symptoms are unlikely to last more than 48 to 72 hours.
The flu vaccine can't infect you because vaccines are made with flu viruses that are either dead or weakened, or they may use proteins from the virus, according to the CDC. "It has no potential to harm. It basically gives a body or immune system a little map," Dr. Naseer says. "It teaches an immune system to be ready for an influenza virus."
Myth 4: I Got the Vaccine and Then I Got the Flu, So It Doesn’t Work
Influenza comes in different strains, and the trick is to match the vaccine to the strains that are likely to be prevalent in a given flu season, Dr. Naseer says. "An influenza virus has surface proteins that go through slight changes every year. These are called antigenic drifts. So we usually predict [strains] three to six months before the flu season."
A new, unanticipated drift may happen that is not covered in the vaccine you took, in which case you may get that strain. "But still, you get protection from the most common strains that were present in the last season and what is predicted to be in the upcoming season," he says.
Plus, while you may still get the flu despite being vaccinated, getting that jab reduces the severity of your illness, per the CDC.
Myth 5: I Don't Need a Vaccine if I Build Up My Defenses With Vitamin C or Zinc
Supplementing with these nutrients may affect cold symptoms and, in the case of vitamin C, also reduce the risk that people who engage in intense exercise will catch a cold, according to the CDC. But the cold and the flu are two different illnesses.
Plus, a flu vaccine offers far superior protection than any nutritional measures you might take, Dr. Naseer says.
But if you still want to boost your immunity after getting the flu vaccine, "You're better off just focusing on good health practices and making sure that your nutrition is adequate and balanced, and that you're getting adequate sleep," he says. "If you have a well-balanced diet, you will get plenty of vitamin C and zinc."
Myth 6: Pregnant Women Can’t Get the Flu Vaccine
"This is extremely untrue," Dr. Robinson says. "The flu vaccine is proven safe in pregnant women."
What's more, people who are pregnant are at high risk for the complications of the flu, per the CDC, and the virus could harm the unborn baby, too — fever caused by influenza may be linked to defects in a fetus' brain, spine or spinal cord.
If you're pregnant, getting vaccinated will protect both you and your baby. And, as a bonus, you'll pass antibodies onto the fetus, which carry on protecting the baby after birth as well.
Myth 7: I Can't Get Vaccinated for the Flu and COVID-19 Together
Not so! It's safe to get a COVID-19 vaccine and flu shot in the same visit, per the CDC. That's true for the COVID-19 booster shot, too. Just make sure the timing works: Booster shots are recommended two months after the final shot in your primary COVID-19 vaccination series (or last booster shot), according to the CDC.
One consideration before you double up on your vaccines: Doing so may slightly increase your chances of experiencing side effects (think: headaches and fatigue) compared to getting the COVID-19 booster on its own, per a July 2022 study in JAMA.
Myth 8: The Flu Vaccine May Decrease My Chances of Getting COVID-19
"Unfortunately, the flu shot won't protect you from COVID-19," says Michael B. Grosso, MD, medical director of Huntington Hospital in Huntington, New York.
However, being protected from flu will be especially important if COVID-19 surges this fall and winter and hospitals are overburdened with patients, because the vaccine decreases both your risk of infection and the chance you'll develop symptoms severe enough to land you in the hospital.
3 Things to Know Before You Get a Flu Vaccine
Assuming you are now convinced to get a flu vaccine this fall and to make sure your family is vaccinated, keep the following things in mind.
1. There are some people who should check with their doctor before getting a flu vaccine. "People with a history of severe allergy to any component or certain rare reactions, like Guillain-Barre Syndrome, should not be immunized," Dr. Grosso says.
The CDC further explains that eggs are involved in the production of many vaccines, so if you have an egg allergy, ask your doctor what your options might be — if the allergy is mild, you may be able to get the regular vaccine, but there are also egg-free options available. If you're not sure what type of vaccine you're getting, refer to the vaccine package insert, Dr. Robinson says.
Bottom line: Check in with your health care provider if you have any concerns. But note that a shot will likely be recommended, per CDC guidance: "Everyone 6 months and older should get a flu vaccine every season with rare exceptions." Those exceptions include people allergic to ingredients in the vaccine (but not eggs, as above) or those who have had a severe reaction in the past.
2. Different vaccines are approved for people in different age groups. The CDC has a rundown of which ones are available this season, and who they are for.
3. Good COVID-19 hygiene (on top of getting vaccinated) may also help to protect you from the flu and other infections. "When the pandemic surge struck our area this spring , we noticed an abrupt drop off in the rate of respiratory virus illnesses, including cold viruses like RSV, adenovirus and others," says Dr. Grosso, who is based in New York State's Long Island. "It is very likely that hand-washing, masks and distancing made the difference."
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Key Facts About Influenza (Flu)"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Disease Burden of Influenza"
- World Health Organization: "Naming the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and the virus that causes it"
- World Health Organization: "Q&A on coronaviruses (COVID-19)"
- CDC: "People with Certain Medical Conditions"
- CDC: "Cases, Data and Surveillance"
- CDC: "Key Facts About Seasonal Flu Vaccine"
- CDC: "Complementary and Integrative Health Approaches"
- CDC: "Flu and Pregnant Women"
- CDC: "Vaccine Effectiveness: How Well Do Flu Vaccines Work?"
- CDC: "Who Should and Who Should NOT Get a Flu Vaccine"
- Mayo Clinic: "Expect a different flu season: Why you’ll want to be vaccinated for flu"
- World Health Organization: "Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): Herd immunity, lockdowns and COVID-19"
- CDC: "CDC Reports Early Increases in Seasonal Flu Activity"
- CDC: "Frequently Asked Influenza (Flu) Questions: 2022-2023 Season"
- CDC: "Stay Up to Date with COVID-19 Vaccines Including Boosters"
- JAMA: "Reactogenicity of Simultaneous COVID-19 mRNA Booster and Influenza Vaccination in the US"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.