Brace yourselves: Flu season is coming. And along with the coughing, fevers and aches, you can expect a lot of unreliable or downright wrong information about the flu vaccine.
Many people underestimate the health risks from flu. Thousands of Americans die from flu-related complications in a typical year, and last season’s H1N1 strain hit young adults particularly hard.
Flu and pneumonia combined consistently rank among the top 10 causes of death in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was ranked eighth in 2011, the most recent year for which data are available.
Getting a shot (or an immunizing spritz up the nose) isn’t a perfect defense against flu. Some years the strains used to make vaccines aren’t a good match for the type of flu that eventually strikes. But vaccination remains the most reliable way to reduce the risk for illness.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone 6 months of age and older gets vaccinated against flu every year, with rare exceptions, such as those with severe, life-threatening allergies to flu vaccine ingredients or potentially those with a history of Guillain-Barré syndrome following a previous flu shot.
The options for the flu vaccine this year include a shot that protects against the three different flu strains the World Health Organization predicts will be circulating. There are also shots that include protection against four strains. And the CDC recommends that adults ages 65 and older get a high-dose flu shot, yet another variation.
Traditionally, flu vaccines have been made using chicken eggs, but new technologies have led to two relatively new vaccines without a trace of egg.
The nasal spray uses four live flu virus strains that have been weakened. The CDC recommends kids ages 2 to 8 get the spray instead of the shot when available, though healthy adults up to age 49 can also get the spray. The live-flu vaccine isn’t recommended for pregnant women, older adults and people whose immune systems are compromised.
Now is when doctor’s offices, drugstores and many companies offer vaccinations in preparation for the upcoming flu season, which typically lasts from October to April.
So it seemed like the right time to round up a list of common misconceptions about the flu vaccine and some information to set them straight.
Each fact links to a more detailed explanation on Red Wine and Applesauce, a blog where I write about parenting, health and science. Those posts contain links to peer-reviewed research and other sources.
If you have specific questions about vaccination, including which type of vaccine is appropriate for you, consult your doctor or other health professional.
Myth #1: You should fear Ebola more than the flu.
Myth #2: You don’t need the flu vaccine this year if you got it last year.
Myth #3: The flu shot is a “one size fits all” approach that doesn’t make sense for everyone.
Myth #4: The flu shot makes some people able to only walk backward.
Myth #5: Deaths from the flu are exaggerated.
Myth #6: The flu vaccine can give you the flu.
Myth #7: Flu vaccines contain dangerous ingredients, such as mercury, formaldehyde and antifreeze.
Myth #8: Pregnant women shouldn’t get the flu vaccine.
Myth #9: Flu vaccines can cause Alzheimer’s disease.
Myth #10: Pharmaceutical companies make a massive profit off flu vaccines.
Myth #11: Flu vaccines don’t work.
Myth #12: Flu vaccines don’t work for children.
Myth #13: Flu vaccines make it easier for people to catch pneumonia or other infectious diseases.
Myth #14: Flu vaccines cause heart problems and strokes.
Myth #15: Flu vaccines can damage a protective barrier between the blood and the brain in young children, hindering their development.
Myth #16: Flu vaccines cause narcolepsy.
Myth #17: The flu vaccine weakens your body’s immune response.
Myth #18: The flu vaccine causes nerve disorders such as Guillain-Barré syndrome.
Fact: Only the 1976 swine flu vaccine was linked to Guillain-Barré syndrome, and influenza is more likely to cause the nerve disorder than the flu vaccine; the CDC says those with the Guillain-Barré should consult a doctor before getting the flu shot.
Myth #19: The flu vaccine can cause neurological disorders.
Myth #20: Influenza isn’t that bad. Or, people recover quickly from it.
Myth #21: People don’t die from the flu unless they have another underlying condition already.
Myth #22: People with egg allergies can’t get vaccinated against flu.
Myth #23: If I get the flu, antibiotics will help me get better.
Myth #24: The flu shot doesn’t work for me, personally, because last time I got it, I got the flu anyway.
Myth #25: I never get the flu, so I don’t need the shot.
Myth #26: I can protect myself from the flu by eating right and washing my hands regularly.
Myth #27: It’s OK if I get the flu because it will make my immune system stronger.
Fact: Even if the flu in a future season resembles a strain you’ve had before, the protection is likely to be incomplete and fades over time. Flu weakens your immune system while your body is fighting it and puts others at risk.
Myth #28: If I do get the flu, I’ll just stay home so I’m not infecting others.
Myth #29: Making a new vaccine each year only makes influenza strains stronger.
Myth #30: The side effects of the flu shot are worse than the flu.
Fact: The most common side effects of the flu shot are mild, such as headache, fatigue, cough, low fever and arm soreness lasting a couple of days. Fewer than one in a million people experience severe allergic reactions.
Myth #31: The “stomach flu” is the flu.
Myth #32: If you haven’t gotten a flu shot by November, there’s no point in getting one.
Editor’s note 3:08 p.m.: The response to Myth #8 was reworded to make clearer that vaccination against flu lowers a pregnant woman’s risk of miscarriage.
Tara Haelle is a freelance health and science writer based in Peoria, Ill. She’s on Twitter: @tarahaelle