8 Things You Do That Might Be Messing Up Your Flu Shot
Read this before you roll up your sleeve.
What you need to know about the flu vaccine
If you’re dreading this year’s flu shot—we don’t blame you. No one wants to subject him or herself to a sometimes-painful needle injection that doesn’t always seem mandatory. But while flu shots might not be required, they are strongly encouraged by the medical community—for good reason. The flu is a serious disease that can lead to pneumonia, hospitalizations, and death—especially if you’re over age 65. “During the 2014-2015 flu season, adults 65 years and older accounted for 61 percent of flu-related hospitalizations and 79 percent of influenza and pneumonia-related deaths,” says Kathleen Cameron, MPH, senior director, Center for Healthy Aging, National Council on Aging (NCOA). While the only real way to mess up your flu shot is to not get it at all, we asked top experts to reveal the biggest misconceptions and mistakes people make when it comes to getting a flu vaccine. Here are secrets the flu virus doesn’t want you to know.
You skip this year’s flu shot because you got one last year
Every year influenza viruses mutate—the virus isn’t the same as the one you were vaccinated for last year. “People need to get the flu shot every year because flu viruses are constantly changing and it is not unusual for new flu viruses to appear each year,” says Caroline Sullivan, nurse practitioner, primary care provider, and assistant professor of nursing at Columbia University in New York City. “Studies have shown that the body’s immunity to influenza either through natural infection or vaccination declines over time.” If you got the vaccine last year and still came down with the flu, it’s natural to wonder why you’d get the flu vaccine again, but experts say that in these scenarios, the virus has mutated so the vaccine hasn’t kept up, or the illness you might have had was not true influenza, but another virus altogether. Check out these 9 natural remedies to help you kick the flu.
You avoid the vaccine because you suspect you already got the flu
Are you SURE it was the flu and not some other virus? Positive? In addition, there are multiple strains of influenza circulating every year, so getting one strain doesn’t protect you from the others. “Many other viruses can look and feel like the flu and you can still get sick with those,” says Ali Mileski, RNC, Senior Staff Nurse at a NYC hospital. “However, even if you are sick, the flu shot decreases the acuity of your illness and protects you from other viruses through ‘cross-protection antibodies.’” These are viruses that are similar to the strains of flu in the flu vaccine, which your body learns to fight off. The flu shot is either “trivalent” or “quadrivalent,” which means it protects against the three or four strains of influenza most likely predicted to hit the US that year. Here’s what to eat if you have the flu.
You think the flu vaccine will actually give you the flu
This is the most common misconception people have about the flu shot. But science doesn’t back it up. “The flu shot is made in such a way that it either contains no flu virus at all, or an inactivated or noninfectious virus,” says Dr. Ashe. “While the flu vaccine can cause a low-grade fever and muscle aches, these symptoms are usually temporary and not as severe as or indicative of the flu.” Here are 10 myths about vaccinations you can safely ignore.
You make the flu vaccine hurt even more than it should by tensing up
A new study showed that 24 percent of adults don’t get their flu shot because of a fear of needle. “I do the scientific research on why, but the important thing is once someone is afraid, they tend to keep that fear for life,” says Amy Baxter, MD, founder and CEO of MMJ Labs. But you could be in control of how painful the vaccination experience is for you. First: Try not to tense up. “Tensing a muscle makes it hurt more, so try to relax the arm and focus on breathing,” says Baxter. “There are many strategies to reduce needle fear, but it usually takes three good experiences to help someone overcome it.”
You don’t exercise the day of your flu shot
Working out before or after you get jabbed may help your body churn out more flu-fighting antibodies. Iowa State University students who jogged or biked for 90 minutes after they got the flu shot had nearly double the number of antibodies of students who didn’t. Here’s how to figure out whether you should still work out when you’re sick.
You wait too long to get the vaccine
Flu season starts as early as October and continues into May. The flu shot works best when it is given earlier in the season. The CDC recommends getting the flu shot as soon as it is available, which is why most doctor’s offices and pharmacies start giving out the vaccine as early as September. “The earlier a person is vaccinated, the more antibodies and immunity they can develop before the height of flu season, which is January and February,” says Mileski. “Some people think that waiting closer to the height of the season will give them stronger immunity, but this isn’t true.” Think of it like training for a marathon. Would you wait to train until a month before so you’d be at your peak performance? No—you’d begin four to six months early to get your body race-ready. Getting your flu shot early “trains” your immune system for the race of flu season. Since it takes about two weeks to build up immunity after you receive the vaccine, it’s best to schedule your flu shot in early fall. But if you find yourself unvaccinated in late January or February, it’s still recommended to get the flu vaccine. “The flu season can last into May, so as long as the flu virus is in circulation, it’s better to get vaccinated late in the season than not at all,” says Cameron.
You don’t get the flu vaccine because you’re pregnant or breastfeeding
This is a hot topic among pregnant and breastfeeding women, as well as those trying to conceive, but verdict is in: You should absolutely get vaccinated. “Pregnant women should definitely get a flu vaccine, as they’re one of the most susceptible populations and can become seriously ill and even die from the flu,” says Laura Haynes, PhD, professor for the Center on Aging and department of immunology at the University of Connecticut. If you’re breastfeeding an infant and have received the vaccine during your pregnancy, then you pass all of the immunity you acquired from the vaccine onto your newborn or infant. “This is called passive immunity, and is one of the amazing things about breastfeeding,” says Mileski.
You don’t get the vaccine because you think you’re too old—or young
Anyone older than six months should get the flu vaccine (with the only exception being those who have a severe reaction to it). “People who should especially have the flu vaccine are children older than six months; anyone who cares for children; the elderly or someone at risk of getting the flu; pregnant women, people with asthma, heart disease, or diabetes; anyone over age 50; anyone who suffers from an autoimmune disease; anyone who lives in a nursing home or long-term care facility; those with obesity; and all healthcare workers,” says Mileski. That pretty much means all of us. However, if you’re over age of 65, wait until at least late October to get your vaccine (between Halloween and Thanksgiving). This is because the vaccine’s protection wanes more quickly in older individuals. If they get the vaccine too soon, protection might not last the entire flu season. (But if the only choice for some seniors is to get the vaccine earlier or not at all, they should choose to get it earlier.) Don’t miss these 40 things your doctor wishes you knew about vaccines.