Over the last few years, the COVID vaccine might've been at the top of your mind. But don't forget that you still need your yearly flu vaccine, too. And rest assured that if you get side effects, they will be a lot easier to tolerate than getting the flu itself.
"The flu is a very significant illness," says Georges C. Benjamin, MD, executive director of the American Public Health Association. "It still puts thousands of people in the hospital every year and it kills thousands of people."
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But getting vaccinated greatly lowers your risk for both of those outcomes.
"The side effects from the flu vaccine are extraordinary mild," Dr. Benjamin tells LIVESTRONG.com. "The flu shot has more volume than the COVID shot, but most people tolerate it very well."
Common side effects from the flu vaccine may include the following, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- Soreness, redness and swelling at the injection site
- Itching at the injection site
- Muscle aches
According to the CDC, side effects of the nasal spray may also include runny nose, wheezing, sore throat and cough.
Don't panic, though. These effects are normal, usually mild and short-lived. Side effects from the flu shot typically only last a day or two.
Still, you'll want to do what you can to feel better, so here's how to relieve flu shot side effects.
Because the flu virus changes every year, the vaccine must change too. That's why you might get side effects some years but not others, Dr. Benjamin says.
1. Ice the Injection Site
Pain, redness, itching and a little soreness in your shoulder is common, Dr. Benjamin says, and could last up to five days after the shot.
"That's not an allergic reaction," he clarifies. "It's the first evidence that the body has absorbed the medication and is using it to train your body to fight off infection."
Icing the area can help calm soreness, swelling, bruising and any rash-like redness.
"The goal is to cool down the area," says Margot Savoy, MD, MPH, associate professor of Family and Community Medicine at the Katz School of Medicine at Temple University and senior vice president of Education for the American Academy of Family Physicians.
But here's the catch: Don't do it right away. "You don't want to shut down the blood vessels too soon," says Dr. Savoy, who completed a postdoctoral fellowship in vaccine science with the American Academy of Family Physicians. "If you put ice on too soon, it will take longer (for your body) to absorb the vaccine."
Here's how to do it, she says:
- Wait six to eight hours after the injection.
- Apply an ice pack, bag of frozen veggies or a cool washcloth to your skin for up to 15 minutes. If you're using an ice pack, place a towel or washcloth between the ice and your skin to avoid frostbite.
- Wait an hour. If you still have swelling, apply the ice again for up to 15 minutes.
- Repeat until the swelling has gone down.
Keep in mind that even if you don't ice the area, the swelling and soreness will eventually go away on its own, Dr. Savoy says.
2. Move Your Arm
You could even lift light weights to help relieve arm soreness.
3. Take an Antihistamine
Many companies, such as CVS, Walgreens, Walmart and Costco, also sell the generic equivalent of these over-the-counter products.
An antihistamine could also help with a runny nose caused by the flu vaccine nasal spray.
Loratadine is among a group of second-generation, non-drowsy antihistamines, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
If you don't mind getting drowsy, you could take a first-generation antihistamine like Benadryl ($6.29, Amazon), which contains the active ingredient diphenhydramine.
If you're treating a child's symptoms, be sure to check with their pediatrician before giving them any kind of medication.
4. Try Acetaminophen for Flu-Like Symptoms
Can the flu shot make you sick? Flu-like symptoms like a fever are common. But that doesn't mean the shot gave you the flu. Rather, it's a sign that your immune system is responding to the vaccine.
"The flu shot cannot give you the flu," Dr. Benjamin says. "It is just like any of our other vaccines designed to stimulate your immune system so that you can more easily fight off the virus if infected."
Dr. Savoy explains it this way: "There are people who get an immune response, such as fever, muscle aches and fatigue. The difference is that once your body realizes you're not getting the flu, those stop. When a person has actual influenza, it can last for a week or more."
If you're sick after the flu shot, you don't have to take anything for the mild fever or muscle aches, as these symptoms will go away on their own. But if you're uncomfortable, Dr. Benjamin recommends Tylenol (acetaminophen).
"You don't have a fever until you get to 100.5," Dr. Benjamin says. "You shouldn't worry about it until it gets to 103. If it doesn't come down with Tylenol after one or two days, you should call your doctor."
Some research suggests it's best to avoid over-the-counter pain and fever-reducers classified as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs). Ibuprofen (Advil), aspirin and naproxen (Aleve) may reduce the body's ability to make the antibodies that protect against the flu, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center.
And ultimately, not everyone has symptoms after the flu shot; these side effects vary from person to person.
What to Avoid After a Flu Shot
Other than NSAIDs, there isn't anything you should necessarily avoid after getting a flu shot. There is no research to suggest that any foods or drinks are off-limits, and you can take your prescribed medications as advised.
Talk to your doctor if you're unsure about what over-the-counter medications you can take after the shot.
When to See a Doctor
Typically, side effects of the flu vaccine go away after a few days on their own. If they last longer than a week, or your symptoms are severe, you should call your doctor.
However, authors of a January 2018 review in Human Vaccines and Immunotherapeutics evaluated all the safety data and concluded: "Severe allergic reactions to influenza vaccines are very rare, being estimated at less than 1 in a million doses."
Still, the CDC says to call a doctor if you have any of these rare, serious reactions after getting the flu vaccine:
- Breathing problems
- Hoarseness or wheezing
- A fast heartbeat
What About Guillain-Barré Syndrome?
Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) , a rare neurological disorder that causes temporary weakness and paralysis in some parts of the body, has been linked to a very small number of flu vaccines, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The CDC reports, "If there is an increased risk of GBS following flu vaccination it is small, on the order of one to two additional GBS cases per million doses of flu vaccine administered."
"While it can seem scary, the most common reason people get it is another infection," Dr. Savoy says. "I wouldn't spend time worrying about getting Guillain-Barré from the flu vaccine."
In a December 2019 study in the Journal of Translational Internal Medicine, the authors concluded, "The complication of GBS due to vaccination is a rare event and thus poses very minimal risk."
In fact, research suggests you're more likely to get GBS after getting the flu than after vaccination, according to the CDC.
1. How Long Does the Flu Shot Last?
The flu shot lasts around six to eight months, per Sanitas Medical Center. This is why it's recommended to get a flu shot every year during peak flu season, which is from the end of October to January, per the National Council on Aging (NCOA).
And as we've learned, flu vaccines are updated every season to keep up with changing viruses, so it's especially important to get a flu shot if you're prone to getting sick, per the NCOA.
Keep in mind, though, that you can still get the flu (and the flu is contagious) even if you've gotten the shot. It might just be a milder case.
2. How Effective Is the Flu Shot?
Flu statistics show that vaccine effectiveness can vary from person to person. But recent studies have shown that flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu by 40 to 60 percent among the overall population during flu seasons, per the CDC.
Remember, the flu vaccine is not 100 percent effective; there is still a chance you could get the flu. However, it will be a milder case and will often not require hospitalization.
3. Who Should Not Get the Flu Shot?
While most people ages six months and older can get the flu shot, there are certain groups of people who should avoid the flu vaccine. These include the following, per the CDC:
- People with allergies to any of the ingredients in the flu vaccine, including gelatin, antibiotics and other ingredients
- People who have had a severe allergic reaction to a dose of flu vaccine in the past
You should also talk to your doctor about whether you can get a flu vaccine if you have Guillain-Barré Syndrome or are not feeling well prior to the vaccination, per the CDC.
People with egg allergies should get the flu vaccine, according to the CDC. Although most flu shots are made using egg-based technology and contain a small amount of egg proteins, research shows that people with egg allergies are unlikely to have a severe allergic reaction to the flu vaccine.
- The American Journal of Medicine: "Frequency of Adverse Reactions After Influenza Vaccination"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Seasonal Influenza (Flu)"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Possible Side-Effects From Vaccines"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Flu Vaccine Safety Information"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Live Attenuated Influenza Vaccine [LAIV] (The Nasal Spray Flu Vaccine)"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Flu Vaccine and People with Egg Allergies"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Misconceptions about Seasonal Flu and Flu Vaccines"
- Human Vaccines & Immunotherapeutics: "Influenza vaccines: Evaluation of the safety profile"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Guillain-Barré Syndrome and Vaccines"
- Journal of Translational Internal Medicine: "Influenza Vaccination and Guillain–Barré Syndrome: Reality or Fear"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Guillain-Barré syndrome and Flu Vaccine"
- National Council on Aging: "What Older Adults Need to Know During Flu Season"
- CDC: "How Well Flu Vaccines Work"
- CDC: "Who Should & Who Should NOT Get Vaccinated"
- Mayo Clinic: "Guillian-Barré Syndrome"
- Sanitas Medical Center: "How Long Does the Flu Shot Last?"
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.