Confronting Flu Myths

It’s peak season for the flu, and with the virus running rampant, so are rumors about the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness on social media. Uma Savanoor, MD, MPH, Director, Medical Operations, OccuHealth and Employee Health at ProMedica dispels some of the more popular myths we’ve seen surrounding vaccination.

Myth #1: Flu vaccines are not very effective, especially since you can’t be protected from every strain.

This year’s vaccine includes protection from Influenza A (H1N1), which appears to be the most widespread virus this season. Even though the vaccine may not be 100% effective, it remains the best means of preventing the flu. Antibodies made in response to vaccination with one flu virus can sometimes provide protection against different but related flu viruses.

The effectiveness of a vaccine varies from year to year, and depends on:

  • Age and health of person vaccinated.
  • “Match” between Flu viruses circulating and the strains in the vaccine.

Myth #2: Vaccines contain mercury, which is harmful to the body.

Some vaccines packaged in multi-dose vials contain small amounts of mercury (also called Thimerosal) which help guard against the growth of germs. There is no evidence that the trace amounts of Thimerosal can cause anything more than redness and swelling at the injection site. A Thimerosal-free version of the vaccine is available for those who need it. Talk to your primary care physician if you have concerns or need to request this type of vaccine.

Myth #3: The flu vaccine causes Alzheimer’s disease.

The flu vaccine does not cause Alzheimer’s. In fact, the Alzheimer’s Association points to several studies linking good vaccination practices to a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s.

Myth #4: You can get the flu from the flu vaccine, which is why many people feel sick after they get the vaccination.

You cannot get the flu from the flu vaccine because the viruses used to make the vaccine are either killed or weakened.

Most people who receive the flu shot don’t experience any side effects at all.  Some might have redness or swelling at the injection site, or even muscle aches, or low grade fever. Those who receive the intra-nasal vaccine may also experience a runny nose, sore throat and cough. These are only side effects and are not symptoms of the flu.

Despite getting vaccinated, a person can wind up sick from other viruses that can cause flu-like symptoms, but are not actually the flu. Additionally, it takes about two weeks to develop full immunity after a flu shot. You could still get the flu if you were exposed to the virus before, or immediately after, receiving the vaccine.

Myth #5: People who get the flu vaccine are more susceptible to Guillain-Barré Syndrome.

The CDC estimates the probability of developing Guillain-Barré Syndrome following vaccination is no more than one or two cases per million people vaccinated. This is in stark contrast to the estimated 200,000 people hospitalized every year due to flu complications.

Myth #6: Getting the flu vaccine is only important for people who get sick often. Healthy individuals don’t have to be as cautious.

There’s a first time for everything—including getting sick. Many times, people mistake other viruses for the flu, and many people think the flu is “just a bad cold.” The truth is, the influenza virus can be deadly at its worst, and at its best, temporarily debilitating for those who contract it.

Even if your immune system is strong enough to ward off the virus, it’s important to remember that many others aren’t as lucky. Children younger than 5, adults 65 and older, and pregnant women are among the most at risk, as well as those living with chronic conditions like heart disease and asthma. For them, becoming infected with the flu virus could mean the difference between life and death.

Most flu symptoms start one to four days after the virus enters the body. Healthy adults may be able to infect other people beginning one day before symptoms develop and five to seven day after becoming sick. You can pass the virus to uninfected people before you even know you’re sick.  And if you pass the virus to someone who is high risk, they could end up with severe complications, including death.

Getting vaccinated is about more than your own wellness. It’s also about how your protection also protects our most vulnerable community members. It’s still not too late to get your flu shot for this flu season. Get your flu shot even if you have had the flu. Schedule an appointment with your physician or check with your local health department for clinic schedules and vaccination sites.