You’ve heard them all before.
The flu vaccine can make you sick. Don’t bother getting the shot if you’re young and healthy. Pregnant women should avoid the flu vaccine.
Simply Googling the word “flu” turns up a bevy of tips and advice for staying healthy. But how do you separate the good information from the bad?
Here to help you debunk some of the common myths or misconceptions around influenza and the flu vaccine is Susan Kline, MD, who specializes in infectious diseases and serves as the infection control medical director for the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview.
Myth: The influenza vaccine protects me against the “stomach flu”.
The influenza virus—the culprit behind the common flu—can leave you with fever, congestion, muscle aches and fatigue, but it does not usually affect your digestive tract. Instead, the illness known as the “stomach flu” or gastroenteritis is caused by other viruses, bacteria or even contaminated food, according to Dr. Kline. For this reason, an influenza vaccine is not effective guard against gastroenteritis, Kline said.
Myth: I got sick with flu-like symptoms even though I received the seasonal vaccine. I should have been protected.
Although the flu vaccine isn’t 100 percent effective, chances are your flu-like illness wasn’t actually influenza—but another bug masquerading as the common flu.
“There are also many seasonal respiratory viruses that circulate in the winter, like the Parainfluenza virus, RSV, and Coronavirus. Those could all cause symptoms that might seem similar to the influenza,” Kline said. “The flu vaccine cannot protect against those viruses.”
This year, a new, quadrivalent flu vaccine that protects against four separate strains of the flu virus is available. So even if the vaccine won’t save you from other garden variety infections, the protection it offers against influenza continues to expand.
Myth: I can get the flu from the flu vaccine or the nasal spray.
The short answer is no, you cannot get the flu from either the traditional vaccine or the nasal spray, according to Kline. The traditional vaccine is filled with dead influenza viruses that are unable to cause illness. You may experience some soreness in the area of the shot, or feel tired in the days following the vaccine. That worn out feeling is just part of the body’s response as it manufactures antibodies in response to the vaccine, Kline said.
The virus delivered in the nasal spray is still alive. However, this particular virus has been modified by scientists so that it cannot survive in the higher temperatures found inside the human body. For that reason, the only side effect you’ll feel from the nasal spray is a stuffy nose as your body responds to the virus in the spray.
Myth: Exposure to cold weather increases my risk of getting the flu.
Chalk this one up as an old wives’ tale. Although the influenza virus tends to peak during the colder months of the year, there is no correlation between exposure to cold weather and vulnerability to the virus, Kline said. However, the same rules don’t apply if you’re out in public during the winter and come into contact with someone carrying the virus.
Myth: Flu vaccines are risky for pregnant women.
Not only is this misconception false—it’s actually dangerous, Kline said. Pregnant women should make receiving the vaccine a high priority, simply because the consequences of getting the flu can be more severe for a pregnant woman. During the H1N1 epidemic in 2009, pregnant women who got that virus ran a higher risk of respiratory failure and death than other members of the population, Kline said.
Newly-minted mothers and fathers infected with influenza could also give the illness to their newborns, who are also at high risk of severe complications from the virus.
Myth: The flu shot isn’t effective unless you get it by November.
It’s hard to predict when the flu season will peak each year. Typically, the virus has a six month season that lingers from late October or early November well into the following spring, Kline said. It can also peak more than once per season.
Because of the virus’ innate unpredictability, it’s better to get vaccinated as early in the season as possible—especially when you consider that it takes roughly two weeks for a vaccinated individual to develop peak immunity. Still, Kline said, the vaccine will be effective no matter when you receive it.
Myth: I'm young and healthy. I don’t need to get the flu shot.
So you’re young and healthy. Good for you. Now go out and get that flu shot anyway.
In 1918, a particularly virulent flu pandemic hit hard among previously healthy young adults, killing many of them, Kline said. And in 2009, that pattern was repeated: The effects of the H1N1 virus were disproportionately felt among young adults, Kline said.
“It’s one of those things you don’t want to gamble with,” Kline said.
For information on where to receive a flu shot, visit the Minnesota Department of Health Immunization page.