Misery loves misconception: Learn the truth about flu protection to stay healthy this season. (Photo: Tom Merton/OJO Images/Getty Images)
If you’re planning to get a flu shot, now is the time: The vaccine offers the best protection before flu season kicks into high gear in late fall. “The flu vaccine is the number one way to prevent influenza unless you live in a bubble,” said Dr. Susan Rehm, vice chair for Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Infectious Disease. Still, myths about the flu vaccine persist. Here, some of the top misconceptions — and the reality.
Myth #1: The protection lasts for more than a year
For the flu shot to be effective, you need one every year, ideally as soon as it’s available so that your defenses are raised through the entire flu season. There are two reasons for this: Just like a tetanus shot protects you for 10 years, the flu shot covers you for one. You might have some lingering protection after the 365-day mark, but it won’t be nearly as powerful.
Secondly, last fall’s vaccine might not work against the new strains circulating this season. “The flu virus changes all the time. It changes a little bit during the season, from October to May, and it certainly changes from year to year,” said Dr. Michael Jhung, medical officer at the Influenza Division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). To account for that, scientists adjust the formula every year in order to match it to the specific types of influenza virus that experts predict will be the most common.
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Myth #2: Receiving the flu vaccine ensures you won’t get sick
Overall, the flu shot is about 50 percent effective, Dr. Jhung said. That doesn’t mean you have a 50-50 chance of getting the flu. Instead, it means that your personal flu risk — whatever that likelihood may be — is cut in half by getting the shot. “Think of a best friend who does all of the things you do, meets all of the same people, and so has the same exposure to the flu virus as you do,” Dr. Jhung explained. “If you had your flu shot and your friend didn’t, your risk of coming down with the flu would be about half of hers.”
The vaccines available in the U.S. defer protection against either three or four different flu viruses, depending on the vaccine you choose. Determining which viruses to include is a bit like reading the weather — experts make the best educated guess possible but don’t always get it right. “We look at strains circulating in the previous season and over the summer, and in other parts of the world,” said Dr. Jhung. “The Southern Hemisphere has their flu season at the opposite time as our flu season, so we’re able to see what’s coming by looking at what their countries are going through.”
How well the shot works also differs from one individual to another. “It’s hard to say exactly how effective the flu vaccine will be for a particular person,” Dr. Rehm told Yahoo Health.
Myth #3: There’s no reason to get the vaccine if you’re young and healthy
The flu is more dangerous than you might realize. Every year, about 200,000 people are hospitalized due to the flu or flu-related complications. The number of flu-related deaths swings widely from one year to another but ranges from about 3,000 to 49,000, according to a CDC analysis.
It’s true that older adults, young children, and people with chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease are especially at risk for serious flu-related health problems. But by getting your flu shot, you reduce your risk of transmitting the flu to them. A June 2014 study found that kids ages 5 and younger were significantly more likely to be hospitalized for the flu if no one in their household received a flu shot. But if even one family member was vaccinated, the risk for a flu-related hospital visit decreased.
“If you have an infant at home or a grandparent and you’re not vaccinated, you’re putting them at risk,” Dr. Jhung said. “You get vaccinated not only to protect yourself but to protect your family and your community.”
Is the flu shot right for you? Visit the CDC’s guide here.
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