The Best Ways to Deal With Flu Vaccine Side Effects, According to Doctors

Flu shot symptoms like arm redness, itching or tingling may last a few days, but there are a few easy ways to treat them at home.
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The COVID vaccine may be at the top of your mind, but don't forget that you still need your yearly flu vaccine. And rest assured that if you get side effects, they will be a lot easier to tolerate than getting the flu.

"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
  • Headache
  • Itching at the injection site
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Muscle aches

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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.

Still, you'll want to do what you can to feel better, so here are the best ways to deal with the side effects.

Tip

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."

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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."

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Here's how to do it, she says:

  1. Wait six to eight hours after the injection.
  2. 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.
  3. Wait an hour. If you still have swelling, apply the ice again for up to 15 minutes.
  4. 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

Keeping your arm moving with some gentle arm exercises may help decrease pain, swelling and arm tingling or numbness at the injection site, according to UPMC HealthBeat.

3. Take an Antihistamine

For itching at the injection site, Dr. Savoy says, you could take an antihistamine such as loratadine, the active ingredient in products like Claritin and Alavert. 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, which contains the active ingredient diphenhydramine.

Warning

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

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, fever, muscle aches, 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."

You don't have to take anything for a 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.

When to See a Doctor

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
  • Hives
  • Paleness
  • Weakness
  • A fast heartbeat
  • Dizziness

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 National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

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."

"We talk about it because it is so scary, but 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.

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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. If you think you may have COVID-19, use the CDC’s Coronavirus Self-Checker.
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