Reader Kay Marie asked me via Twitter to weigh in on the whole flu shot deal: “Would love to hear your take on flu shots: necessary , evil, for everyone, part of life, part of mass hysteria…..?”
Ok, everyone. Short answer: yes, no, not necessarily, yes, and that depends. Long answer:
Preamble: I am not a doctor, let alone a specialist in infectious disease. This information is not a replacement for consulting your doctor to decide what is right for you. This is just some quick information in general terms.
I’m a young, healthy person which means I can fight off an illness generally pretty well, but that means I can carry around an illness for a couple of reasons – I can be asymptomatic for a while and still spread germs and I can function pretty well even when I am symptomatic. I also work in health care. So necessary? For me, yes. I may be able to fight off a flu, but if I get sick I might give it to someone who can’t fight it off so well like a child, elderly person, or immune compromised person.
Also it really really sucks to have the flu. You feel sore, tired, you’re coughing, fevered/chills – it’s not pretty. You definitely can’t go to work and you shouldn’t even be out in public, which severely limits you. If you go out anyway, you are risking people’s lives. I know that sounds extreme, but there are people out there who would not survive a flu. This is especially bad in my line of work, but really anyone who is going out in public needs to consider getting a shot because you never know who you’re going to encounter – meaning you don’t know who you might infect and who might infect you. You also never know what you might bring home to your family. So, again, necessary? Yes.
Not everyone can get the shot, and in places where the shot is scarce (if a shortage occurs) you may encounter a situation where shots are only given to the highest risk people. But barring those complications, almost everyone should be able to get a shot. People who shouldn’t get vaccinated generally include:
- people who are allergic to chicken eggs,
- people who have had a reaction to the vaccine in the past,
- very young children (under 6 months), and
- people who are already sick (wait to get better – like me right now).
People who almost certainly should get vaccinated include:
- school-age children over 6 months,
- pregnant women,
- people over 50,
- people with certain medical conditions (ask your doctor),
- anyone living or congregating en mass (i.e., nursing homes, etc),
- health care workers,
- or people living in a house with any of the people already mentioned.
For everyone else the flu shot is pretty much optional. Ideally, though, as many people as possible would get the shot so that fewer people would be sick. Note that there is also a nasal spray version available for healthy non-pregnant people aged 2-49 so if you don’t like needles, that’s another option. If you can get the shot/spray and there’s no reason you shouldn’t, then do it. Why take the risk of getting sick?
The flu is not a cold, it’s a bitch. The last time I got the flu I ended up with pneumonia. And I was a healthy teenager. I have had bad colds, but I’m fairly confident that I’ve never had the flu since. Strep, yes. Many times. But I have never in my life been as sick as I was then. It was awful. Perspective: I cracked a rib from coughing. You do NOT want to risk being that sick. When someone says they have “the flu”, they most often just have a bad cold. If you get the flu for reals, you will never mistakenly call a cold “the flu” again.
Lately people are freaking on vaccines. I unapologetically consider this to be epically ignorant. Vaccines have saved millions of lives and millions more from what I described above. Like anything, they are not without some risks, but the benefits far outweigh them. We unfortunately live in a complacent society, but more unfortunately our pleas to rationality are falling on deaf ears in some cases. I can’t stress enough how dangerous this is. I am not in the pocket of Big Pharma – I am a regular person who also has to get a shot. And as soon as I’m over this cold, I’m getting one…well two, eventually.
This season we also have to deal with H1N1 so people have to get two shots. We are lucky to have a vaccine for this new flu…eventually. We didn’t have one in 1918 and millions of people died. There is no indication yet whether this flu would be that bad, but why take the chance? But talk to your doctor. If you have any concern or questions about vaccines, they will be able to advise you based on your medical history, to help make a choice that is best for you.
So in sum: Some people definitely should get the vaccine, some people can’t, and the people in the middle don’t really “need” to but should do it anyway. Why take the chance of getting sick or making someone else sick who could die? No one is holding a gun to your head, but really as many people should be vaccinated as possible. And if you won’t listen to me, listen to a doctor.
Consult the Public Health Agency website (for Canadians) to find out how to get a flu shot. There is also some articles on how the flu shot is made in the lab and other general tidbits, for anyone who’s interested. Finally, make sure to tell inform ER staff that you’ve recently had a shot if you have to go in for any weird symptoms – they may be unrelated to your shot, but you never know. Generally people have the shot without any ill effects and barely notice it at all, but it’s always good to make sure the ER has a complete picture of your medical history.
Quick side note on the flu vaccine: You will not infect anyone after you get the flu vaccine. There are many types of vaccines, but the flu shot is made with dead virus. Your immune system is adjusting, but it’s virus that makes people sick, not your immune response – i.e., you can snot all over someone, but if there’s no live virus in it, there’s no risk of them getting sick. It’s just gross. There is enough of the virus’ characteristics to activate your immune system, but there is nothing in there that can replicate and grow.
The way the immune system works is by remembering viruses, recognizing them later, and killing them. If it is a virus you have never encountered, your immune system sucks at first because it has to build antibodies – so you get sick because the virus has time to get into your cells and replicate. If you are vaccinated though, your body has already built antibodies. So it doesn’t have to waste that time before killing the virus, meaning the virus doesn’t have a whole lot of time to set up shop before your body kills it.
This is in super over-simplified terms, but that’s basically how it works. Other than some mild side effects associated with the activation of your immune system, the vaccine cannot make you “sick” and it does not make you contagious.
The nasal spray does not work this way. The nasal spray is an attenuated virus – meaning that it is a live version of the virus engineered to be harmless/less virulent so there is a small risk of reversion to virulence. One of the polio vaccines is this type and the MMR, as well. So if you’ve had those, you have some idea of what the effects for you might be. In my case, after my MMR I got a high 24-hour fever 4 weeks later – nothing else, but I did have to go home from work that day. If you absolutely can’t risk getting such symptoms (because of work, or whatever) then the spray may not be for you. But the benefit is that you have more robust protection compared to the shot, because it stimulates a more broad and durable immune response.
There are dead and attenuated versions of the H1N1 vaccine as well.
But don’t take my word for it. I can’t stress this enough: if you have burning questions about viruses and don’t want a relatively unqualified recent graduate answering them, ask your doctor. But trust me when I say that you absolutely do not want to contract the flu. So if you can, get a shot.