Dispelling Myths About the Flu Vaccine

Duke Infectious Disease Specialist Explains Why You Should Get the Flu Vaccine Now

By Bryan Roth
September 14, 2020
This fall presents a unique challenge because of the overlap between seasonal flu and COVID-19. For this reason, it’s extremely important that you get a flu vaccine this year to protect yourself.

With COVID-19 still spreading throughout our communities, Duke Health experts are warning of a dual threat to Americans as flu season begins. This fall presents a unique challenge because of the overlap between the two viruses. For this reason, it’s extremely important that you get a flu vaccine this year to protect yourself.

According to Cameron Wolfe, MBBS, an infectious diseases specialist with Duke Health, seasonal flu is like most viruses in that it changes subtly every year. “Last year’s vaccine may have created antibodies that will could help you this year, but the virus still changes every year,” Wolfe said. “That’s why the flu vaccine changes every year to keep up as best it can with a changing flu strain.”

Unfortunately, several myths about the flu vaccine continue to persist, which discourage some people from getting it every year. Here, Dr. Wolfe sets the record straight about the flu vaccine and COVID-19.

Can a flu vaccine give me the flu?

It can’t because there’s no living viral parts to the injection. Most people don’t experience any illness. If you feel off, it means your immune system is responding to the vaccine. That feeling usually goes away within 24 hours. A small percent of people may experience a sore shoulder or mild muscle aches near the spot where they received their vaccination. 

Does timing matter for getting a flu vaccine?

It’s important to get an immunization before the flu season picks up. It takes 10 to 14 days for antibodies to develop and protect you. If you get a vaccine in January, when the flu season is peaking, and you come into contact right away with someone who has influenza, your body has not had enough time to mount a sufficient response. You could still get the flu in that setting, so getting a vaccine in September is best.

Do we know if this year’s flu vaccine will be effective? What if I still get the seasonal flu?

Scientists and public health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and organizations around the country work months ahead of each flu season to predict as best they can what needs to go into a flu vaccine to protect you. However, the match may not be perfect. When that’s happened in the past, data shows a vaccine still stimulates antibodies that protect you. You could end up with a much milder version of the flu and recover quicker. Even a partially-effective vaccine means you’re less likely to be sick and pass an illness to other people.

Is it better to get sick with flu than to get a flu vaccine?

Your body will make the antibodies against a seasonal flu if you get it, but there’s a chance you may be the rare person who gets a very severe case of the flu. There’s no chance you’ll get severe flu from a vaccine. That’s especially important to consider as we get older. 

It’s also important to consider that if you were to contract influenza, you could impact your friends, family, or coworkers. Think about it this way: What’s best way to protect you and the people around you?

Seasonal Flu and COVID-19

What’s the difference between seasonal flu and COVID-19?
Symptoms of season flu and COVID-19 can often be very similar. COVID tends to last longer and has a greater potential to be more severe. Getting a flu vaccine helps us reduce the likelihood of flu as the reason if you are sick.

Does a flu vaccination increase your risk of getting COVID-19?
No. The danger this year is that getting the two viruses can make each one worse and put a strain on our health care resources. You wouldn’t want to go through COVID isolation and testing, only to find out that you have a case of influenza that could have been prevented. That is why you should get the flu vaccine.

Can I get a flu vaccine and a COVID vaccine when it’s ready?
There’s no reason you can’t get both a COVID vaccine and a seasonal flu vaccination in the same season. Because we don’t know when a COVID-19 vaccine is coming, you shouldn’t hold off on a flu vaccine. We don’t know when the COVID vaccine will be available, but this year’s seasonal flu vaccine is ready. 

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