Q&A: Why is the Flu Shot So Important?
Q: I never get the flu. Why do I need a flu shot?
In North Carolina, 208 people died from the flu during the 2018-19 season. Many of those deaths could have been avoided with a simple flu shot. If you've never had the flu, you’ve been healthy and lucky. The flu is highly contagious and makes you feel miserable, and in some cases, it can be fatal.
In addition to protecting yourself, it's important to protect others from the flu. Most of the people who died from the flu last season had chronic diseases such as emphysema, COPD, diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Children and the elderly are usually most susceptible to flu. Getting a flu shot not only protects you, but it prevents you from spreading the disease to others.
Q: You can get a flu shot and still get the flu. Why should I bother?
Researchers predict what strains of flu will develop each year and create vaccines that will protect against the 3 or 4 strains that are most likely to appear. Sometimes Mother Nature sneaks in a strain that was not predicted, and the vaccine is less effective. However, even if you aren’t completely protected against that exact flu strain, you benefit from the flu shot by having a less severe case of the flu than if you had skipped the vaccine entirely.
Q. Is it too early to get a flu shot?
The flu season usually starts in October and peaks in January/February. Since it takes roughly two weeks for your immune system to mount a response to the vaccine, now is a great time to get vaccinated.
Q. I got a flu shot late last year. Am I still covered?
The vaccine is thought to be protective for one year. Over that time, we start to see a decrease in antibody levels, meaning your protection against the flu goes away. Additionally, there is typically a new circulating strain of the flu virus each year. The annual flu vaccine is reformulated every year to protect against flu strains that may have changed since the previous year. This means that your old vaccine will not protect you against new strains.
Q: Are there other ways the flu vaccine can benefit my health?
Getting a flu vaccine appears to lower your risk for other health problems. Researchers found that people who had heart attacks and got a flu shot while in the hospital had a 10% less chance of having a second heart attack that year when compared with those who didn’t get a flu shot. While we aren’t sure exactly why this is, we do know that having the flu causes inflammation in the body, and many researchers believe there is a link between inflammation and heart disease.
There is very little downside to having the flu shot, and it is recommended for most people. If you have questions about the flu vaccine and whether or not it is right for you, talk to your health care provider for guidance that's specific to your personal health needs.
About the Author
Cynthia B. Snider, MD, MPH Infectious Disease, Internal Medicine at the Regional Center for Infectious Disease