No Excuses for Skipping Your Annual Flu Shot

UCSF Dispels Top 10 Flu Myths

By Scott Maier

Flu season has arrived. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that 5-20 percent of Americans come down with the flu every year, so getting your flu shot is as important as ever.

“Even though many people use the term ‘flu’ to refer to a common respiratory illness such as a cold, influenza is actually a very serious disease,” said Adrienne Green, MD, associate chief medical officer at UCSF Medical Center. “The seasonal flu shot is not to treat the flu but instead prevent it. It’s important to get a flu shot as soon as possible to protect yourself, your family and your community.”

Numerous misconceptions exist about influenza and the flu shot. Here are 10 myths and corresponding facts:

Myth No. 1: The influenza vaccine can give you the flu.

“Flu shots delivered with needles are made with inactivated virus not capable of causing infection,” Green said. “Nasal vaccines also are available, so consult with your doctor.”

Myth No. 2: It really doesn’t make a difference if I get the flu shot or not.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Green said. “The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates vaccinations prevented 79,000 flu hospitalizations and 6.6 million flu-associated illnesses during the 2012-13 influenza season. Complications from the flu can be serious and result in hospitalization, even death, for some patients. The best way to prevent the flu is to get vaccinated. It’s even more important to get the flu shot if you, a family member or a close contact have a chronic disease.”

Myth No. 3: If you are young and healthy, you do not need the flu vaccine.

“The flu vaccine is recommended for everyone age 6 months and older,” Green said. “Influenza is contagious and can lead to serious illness, including pneumonia. Healthy people can get sick enough to miss work or school for a significant time, some even requiring hospitalization. The vaccine is advised for those who might spread the virus to others who are at high risk. Most health care workers are required to get the shot to protect their patients.”

Myth No. 4: I don’t have time to get the flu vaccine.

“You don’t have time not to get it,” Green said. “Each flu season, millions of workdays are lost due to the flu, resulting in billions of dollars in sick days and lost productivity. The flu vaccine is quick, easy and available at many clinics, drugstores and other community settings.”

Myth No. 5: I got the flu vaccine last year, so I don’t need it again this year.

“A flu vaccine is needed every year for those age 6 months and older for two reasons,” Green said. “First, the body’s immune response from vaccination declines over time, so an annual vaccine provides optimal protection. Second, because flu viruses constantly are changing, the flu vaccine formula is reviewed and updated each year to keep up.”

Myth No. 6: I got the flu even though I got the vaccine, so it must not work.

“There are several reasons someone may get a flu-like illness, even after vaccination,” Green said. “You can become ill from other viruses with symptoms similar to the flu. Second, you may have been exposed to the influenza virus before your body developed immune protection from the shot, which typically takes two weeks. Third, you may have been exposed to a flu virus very different from the viruses the vaccine is designed to protect against. The ability of the vaccine to protect a person largely depends on the similarity, or ‘match,’ between the viruses selected to make the vaccine and those spreading and causing illness.”

Myth No. 7: I don’t need the flu vaccine because I never get sick.

“Even if you don’t get sick or only experience a mild illness, others might not be as lucky,” Green said. “Infants, the elderly and people with multiple medical conditions or weakened immune systems may not be able to fight off influenza as well as you. Getting vaccinated not only protects you but also others.”

Myth No. 8: If you haven’t received the seasonal flu vaccine by November, there is no point getting vaccinated.

“Flu season can last well into the spring,” Green said. “Even if you have not been vaccinated by Thanksgiving or Christmas, it is still protective to get vaccinated.”

Myth No. 9: I cannot get the flu vaccine because I’m pregnant.

“Pregnant women have a higher risk for serious complications from influenza than non-pregnant women of reproductive age,” Green said. “If you receive an influenza vaccine during pregnancy, it also protects your baby for his or her first six months. This is important because there are no flu vaccines available for babies at this very young age. Pregnant women may receive the flu shot at any stage of pregnancy or while breastfeeding after the baby is born. The nasal spray vaccine, however, is not recommended for use in pregnant women.”

Myth No. 10: The flu vaccine has many side effects.

“The influenza vaccine has one of the best safety records of all vaccinations, and the majority of side effects are mild,” Green said. “The most common complaint after the vaccine is soreness and tenderness at the injection site.”

UC San Francisco (UCSF), now celebrating the 150th anniversary of its founding, is a leading university dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care. It includes top-ranked graduate schools of dentistry, medicine, nursing and pharmacy, a graduate division with nationally renowned programs in basic, biomedical, translational and population sciences, as well as a preeminent biomedical research enterprise and two top-ranked hospitals, UCSF Medical Center and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco.