Dr. Kim Foster: Wicked Health


A Doctor Weighs in on the Flu Shot Debate

Myths and facts about getting a flu shot

Judging from the overwhelming response to a question about flu shots on YMC’s Facebook page recently, I’d say this is a hot-button issue with moms. And pretty polarizing. I’m not entirely surprised; these days vaccines are, shall we say, a tad…controversial. So it can be incredibly confusing to know what to do. Your best bet? To make a decision that works for you and your family, based on solid information. Not dogma, not propaganda, and certainly not fear.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty of the flu shot, though, I just want to be clear: the flu shot is not your only option when it comes to protecting your family from the flu. There are many other things you can do, of course. And you’re definitely going to want to protect your family in whatever way you can, because the flu has been truly nasty this year.

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And it’s not over yet.

Now, on to the flu shot. Here are some commonly asked questions.

Does the flu shot even work?

At some point, you’ve probably heard someone say: “I got the flu shot this year and I still got the flu. I’m never doing that again.”

And this is true. The protection you get from the flu shot is not 100%. Every year, the World Health Organization (WHO) selects the three most prevalent virus strains to include in the shot. It’s likely, however, that more than just these three strains will go around. You won’t be protected against these. Plus, the flu shot won’t protect you one little bit from all the cold viruses out there. Ditto the “stomach flu”...which isn’t, technically, flu, but what people commonly call viral gastroenteritis. A totally different animal than influenza, gastroenteritis doesn’t give you respiratory symptoms, just a nasty few days of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. 

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Can the flu shot give you the flu?

There are many reasons why this belief still circulates, in spite of the fact that it is scientifically impossible to get the flu from the flu shot (it’s a killed virus in the vaccine). For one, the side effects that some people get from the flu shot (fatigue, mild fever) can feel like the flu. Also, it takes about two weeks for your body to mount a proper immune response to the flu shot—meaning, if you get exposed to the flu in the days immediately before or after you get the shot, you won’t be immune yet. Boom—flu for you. Not the flu shot’s fault. (If you’re looking for blame...you might try the general direction of your sniffly co-workers?)

What about resistance? Are we building superbugs?

Superbugs—bacteria that are resistant to multiple antibiotics—have been getting a lot of press these days. And this is for good reason. It’s a big problem, especially in hospitals. It’s why we try not to overprescribe antibiotics. But, this issue has nothing to do with the flu vaccine. For one, influenza is a virus, not a bacteria. Also, the flu shot is not a treatment for the flu—it works by introducing killed virus into your body, which stimulates your immune system into producing its own antibodies. We’re not talking about multi-drug resistance, because there are no drugs involved.

We’re generally healthy and we eat well. Do we even need the flu shot?

If you and your kids are healthy, there’s a good chance if you get the flu you’ll recover just fine. But many people make the mistake of dismissing the flu as just a somewhat-worse-version of the common cold. No sweat, right? Wrong. The flu is serious business. It will knock you flat, best case scenario. Worst-case scenario, you may be one of the 20,000 Canadians who become seriously ill with the flu annually, and require hospitalization. Most terrifyingly, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. David Butler-Jones, reports that every year between 2,000 and 8,000 Canadians die of the flu and its complications.

The thing is, you may come through the flu unscathed. But what about people around you, and the people you care about? Not everybody you contact will be as healthy as you. By protecting yourself from the flu, you’re protecting them, too. The most vulnerable among us—babies under six months of age, in particular—can’t get the flu shot. They depend on the rest of us to not pass the flu on to them.

Is the flu shot dangerous?

This is where things about the flu shot get touchy, emotionally-charged, and very, very confusing. Concern over vaccine safety, in general, has exploded in recent years, and increasing numbers of people are opting out of all vaccines, not just the flu shot. That conversation is way bigger than I can get into here.

However, what I do know is that the flu shot has been researched worldwide—up, down, and sideways. There is a lot of data to support the safety of the flu shot, and only very rare instances of serious complications, like allergic reactions. I also know that the flu is a very unpleasant virus that absolutely does cause serious complications in people. It comes down to weighing the risks and the benefits.

Does this mean we know everything there is to know? Of course not. Scientific research is an on-going thing. But we still need to make decisions about what to do today. And there is a large body of reassuring evidence that the flu shot is safe, and that does include children over the age of six months and pregnant women. There are no conspiracies, here—people who choose to make health care their livelihood have gone into this line of work to improve people’s health, not cause harm.

Is it too late to get the flu shot?

Let’s say you’ve weighed the info, and you’ve decided you want to get the shot. But—it’s January. Is it too late? Technically, no. We still have several weeks to go in flu season, and it could get worse from here, of course. Some offices may have run out of their supply of vaccine, however, so you should call before heading to the clinic. The best time, generally, to get your flu shot is in the fall when it becomes available, before the viruses start to circulate in significant numbers. Next year, mark your calendar for sometime around October.  

Truth be told, there’s much more to this conversation than can be covered in a single blog post. I’m not aiming to coerce anyone into anything—my goal, here, was to provide some basic information and try to clear some of the confusion.

It comes down to personal choice. You have to weigh the costs and benefits, and figure out what you feel most comfortable with. That’s all any of us can do.

If you’re looking for more info, see Health Canada’s website about the flu shot.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Did you get the flu shot this year? Are you still on the fence? What are your main concerns about the flu shot?