Flu vaccine: Myths versus facts

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Despite recent reports that this year’s flu vaccine may not be as effective because of virus strain mutations, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends a yearly flu vaccine for everyone aged six months and older.

This week is National Influenza Vaccination Week, and Mark Ryan, M.D., assistant professor in the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Family Medicine and Population Health, has cleared up some common myths about the flu vaccine.

MYTH: The flu vaccine actually makes people sick.

FACT: The flu vaccine does not give people the flu or make them sick in any serious way. With the injection (in which the virus is dead and broken up), most people will have some soreness at the vaccination site, and a few people may have some general aches or malaise for a couple of days, but nothing more. The nasal spray vaccine (which is a weakened live virus) can lead to some congestion, sneezing or cold symptoms.

MYTH: The flu vaccine does not work that well.

FACT: The flu vaccine actually works very well. Studies have shown that the flu vaccine prevents 70 to 75 percent of flu-related hospitalizations and intensive care stays among adults and children, and is very effective at protecting patients with long-term illnesses such as diabetes or lung problems.

MYTH: Healthy people do not need to be vaccinated.

FACT: It is true that some people are at higher risk of the flu. People over the age of 50, children, pregnant women and people with long-term illnesses are groups that have a higher risk of hospitalizations or complications from the flu. However, even if someone is young and healthy, the flu can last up to a week, with high fevers, bad cough and muscle pains, and it may take another week or so to feel 100 percent again. For that reason, it is recommended that everyone get the flu vaccine. Also, if a healthy person catches the flu, he or she runs the risk of taking it home where high-risk family members could catch it.

MYTH: It is not necessary to get the flu vaccine every year.

FACT: Unlike other vaccines, the protection from the flu vaccine is not lifelong, but rather wears off slowly. This is a major reason for the recommendation of vaccinating for the flu every year and keeping the protection up-to-date. In addition, each year the flu vaccine that is produced and offered to patients is developed in anticipation of which varieties of the flu are likely to come around — another reason to vaccinate every year.

MYTH: Pregnant women and babies can't get the flu vaccine.

FACT: Actually, pregnant women are considered a group at high risk of flu-related problems, and so it is recommended that all pregnant women get vaccinated to protect themselves. Infants under six months old are not able to get the flu vaccine, but the flu vaccine that the mother gets also provides protection for newborns and younger infants, so even if the mother doesn't get sick, the baby is safer and at lower risk. Nearly every child over six months old can and should get the vaccine.

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