Every year, it’s important to do what we can to reduce the spread of contagious respiratory illnesses, especially in the fall and winter months of flu season. But this year especially, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s more important than ever to make sure you get your flu shot. In fact, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has worked with manufacturers to ensure the availability of extra flu vaccines throughout the season this year.
A common misconception about the flu is that it’s just an extreme case of the common cold. This, however, is not the case. While flu season and cold weather go hand-in-hand, they are not related. The only way to get the flu is by becoming exposed to the influenza virus, and the best method of prevention is vaccination: the flu shot. Keep reading to learn the truth about common misconceptions surrounding this vaccine.
The flu shot consists of injecting a small sample of the virus, which causes the immune system to respond as if it were a real infection and fight it off. In other words, it “tricks” the body’s immune system into taking action against the flu virus. It accomplishes this feat by building antibodies specifically targeted to the injected sample. Antibodies are specialized, Y-shaped proteins that bind like a lock-and-key to the body’s foreign invaders — whether they are viruses, bacteria, fungi or parasites. They are the “search” battalion of the immune system’s search-and-destroy system. They are tasked with finding an enemy and marking it for destruction. This helps the individual build immunity without actually having to contract the illness.
A common myth about the flu shot is that by injecting the flu virus into your system, you are putting yourself at risk or you will get sick with the flu. However, the flu shot is made of an inactivated “dead” virus, or parts of the virus, which can’t actually transmit infection (Click here to see a videographic on how one of this year’s flu vaccines is made). People who get sick after getting the flu shot were probably already recently infected or exposed to the flu. They are likely to get sick regardless as it takes up to two weeks to settle into your system and start showing symptoms. The most common side effects of the flu vaccine are headache, fatigue, muscle pain, and injection site pain or tenderness. Often, many people misbelieve this to be an infection with the flu.
CDC recommends an annual flu vaccine for anyone older than 6 months, preferably in September or October of every year. If you developed immunity to the flu last year, you’re not necessarily protected from this year’s flu. There are many different strains of the virus that change from year to year. Basically, last year’s flu shot has gone out of style, and it’s time for an upgrade. According to the FDA, this year’s flu vaccine available to us will be a quadrivalent formulation, which protects against 4 strains of the flu virus.
Studies have not shown any benefit to getting more than one flu shot each year, even for those who are immunocompromised. CDC recommends one flu shot per year. However, some children may need two doses when getting the vaccination for the first time, spaced at least one month apart. Your family health care provider will be able to tell you if your child needs two doses.
The flu is a highly contagious virus—especially for high-risk populations—which can also lead to serious illness for otherwise healthy people. In fact, the CDC reports at least 18 million medical visits, 24,000 deaths, and 410,000 hospitalizations during the 2019-20 flu season. Even if they only get a mild case, healthy people can still spread the virus. They can also put more vulnerable populations at risk including newborns, the elderly, and the immunocompromised. Basically, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
While it’s recommended to get the flu shot in September or October of each year, the vaccination can still be beneficial anytime the virus is still around. Because the virus changes every year, the flu is relatively unpredictable and each flu season may vary; it usually peaks by March, but sometimes it can still be around as late as May.
While the flu and COVID-19 are both contagious respiratory diseases, they are caused by different viruses. They share many traits, but there are some important differences (including the fact that there is still so much that is unknown about COVID-19):
Learn more about the importance of a flu vaccine in the midst of a pandemic by visiting CDC’s FAQ page regarding this year’s flu season.