Should I Get a Flu Shot?
Question: I keep hearing from people that flu shots don’t work. Some people even say the shot gave them the flu. Is that possible? And, why do I have to get one every year?
Answer: This is a question that most health care practitioners hear numerous times in any given year. If you read no further, finish this paragraph. The short answer is that flu kills thousands of people every year and contributes to hundreds of thousands of hours of lost work income and millions of dollars in other health care expenses. Flu also has been implicated in cancer formation years after the actual infection occurred. A flu shot is the best way to improve your odds to avoid getting sick, to make it a less-severe infection if you do get sick, and the best way to protect your family and your community from its spread (a concept known as herd immunity). There are other ways to avoid getting sick, such as washing your hands frequently. Avoid bringing your hands to your face when you’re out in public, such as after opening a door to a restaurant, or flushing a toilet or pushing a grocery cart. Basically, after touching anything that an infected person might have touched anytime in the last six to eight hours you should wash your hands, ASAP. Most grocery stores offer hand wipes when you enter the store. Use them on your hands and on the rails of the cart. It wouldn’t hurt to wipe down that little child seat as well since you don’t know where junior has been sitting or where that last lady’s purse was before it ended up in the cart. You would be really disgusted to know what public health officials routinely find growing on shopping carts.
Now for those that are interested, a little more detail.
Flu viruses are plentiful and mutate easily. They are easily communicated from one person to another. They are around all year but they cause more disease in the winter months because people are generally in closer quarters to each other. Since they mutate easily, chances are the shot you got last year won’t work this year. So, you need to get a shot every year.
Every year the people who make flu vaccines make an educated guess as to what strains will most likely be common in the following flu season. Sometimes they guess well, other times, not so well. The closer the vaccine is to the strain you ultimately get exposed to, the better your chances. If you get exposed to a strain that is a close match, you probably won’t get sick. If it turns out you are exposed to a cousin of the strain in the vaccine, you might get sick, but not as bad as you would have otherwise. If you are unlucky enough to be exposed to a strain completely unrelated to the vaccine you are probably going to get the flu. To further complicate things, some strains of flu are more virulent than others, so some are more likely to kill and others you can fight off relatively easily.
Now to the question of getting sick after you get the shot: Think of your immune system as your very own department of homeland defense. Every day it fights off invaders and kills homemade cancer cells that form in your body. When you get sick the body is in essence in a big battle with an invader. The sicker you are, the bigger the battle. Like any country at war you are using up resources fighting the battle. Eventually either you, or the invader, are going to wear out and the other side will win. Fortunately–so far at least–you’ve always been the winner.
A vaccine works by stimulating the body’s immune system to produce antibodies against the specific virus. Even though the vaccine is a dead virus (it can’t make you sick), your body thinks it’s the real McCoy. It sends general immunity cells to attack the invader and begins to make specific cells to fight and kill future versions of the invader. That takes resources and time. (And that’s why you need a week or two for the vaccine to take effect). When you get vaccinated you use up resources making those antibodies. Your resistance to disease is temporarily lowered. Now suppose you get exposed to a cold virus. It might not be a virulent one; normally you might have just gotten a sore throat for a couple of days. But since your defenses have been temporarily weakened it gets a better foothold and a bigger-than-normal battle is joined. A nasty cold is sometimes difficult to differentiate from the flu. In this scenario, it is easy to see why someone might think they got the flu from the shot when in fact they were just unlucky enough to be exposed to something else or exposed to the covered virus but before their immunity had kicked in.
So, a flu shot is not a guarantee you won’t get sick, but it definitely improves your odds. The more people who get the shot the better off everybody is. Once one member of the family gets sick it is highly likely that everyone in the house will get sick. The bottom line is that for the vast majority of people, a flu shot will be your best defense against getting the flu and protecting others in your family and community from getting the flu. Enough said?
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Written Dr. Craig Runbeck, Naturopathic Physician