Do You REALLY Need to Get a Flu Shot?


When fall rolls around, there are almost as many signs advising you to get the flu vaccine as there are telling you to buy pumpkin-spiced products. These PSAs make it seem like getting a flu shot is easy and obvious, but every year, the majority of American adults choose NOT to make that long, difficult trek to the pharmacy on the corner. So should you? We won’t tell you what to do, but we’ll help you think through it.

It can limit the likelihood of an epidemic

The first thing to remember is that the flu shot recommendation is a public health measure, which means it’ll benefit more people than just you, you selfish jerk. The goal is to prevent people at risk for influenza complications from catching the flu from someone (like you) and getting really sick. We’re talking pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus infections, and other nasty illnesses, and sadly the death rates for issues stemming from the flu are really high. No one wants a Contagion-style flu pandemic on their hands.

It keeps you from getting the flu, duh

The flu vaccine, while its effectiveness varies, can actually -- surprise! -- prevent the flu. This means, at the very least, that you don’t have to waste vacation days on your pillow castle after the sick days run dry, you don’t have to terrify transit passengers with your sneezes on the way to your doctor, and you don’t have to feel shitty for two weeks. If you’re in a group that’s at high risk for complications, getting a flu shot will hopefully help you avoid even more serious problems.

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There can be negative reactions

Like most vaccines, the flu vaccine can have side effects, some of which may, alarmingly, feel like the flu. Before you start cursing out your doctor or pharmacy nurse, listen up: The vaccine didn’t give you the flu. You may feel achy or feverish, but it’s only going to last about two days versus two weeks. If you do get the flu, it’s either because you picked up the virus before the vaccine started working (it takes about two weeks), or the vaccine didn’t match the flu virus that ended up going around.

The vaccine does have risks, though. Some people have allergic reactions, and it’s possible that the flu vaccine can induce Guillaine-Barré Syndrome, a fun little condition that causes weakness or even paralysis. Anti-vaccine groups tend to bring up the issue of thimerosal, a mercury compound that’s used as a preservative in vaccines, which these groups link to autism, among other adverse reactions. There’s no real evidence of this, though, and all things considered, the rewards probably outweigh the risks.

It won’t always work, but it can still save lives

The effectiveness of the vaccine is different every year, and this isn’t a matter of a few percentage points in variation. Over the past decade, the vaccine effectiveness ranged between 21% and 60, which, like, 21%? Come on! Plus, concerns have been raised recently that those the vaccine becomes less effective when you get it every year. So… nearly an 80% failure rate combined with reduced effectiveness over time? What are are these public health professionals smoking?

Well the flu vaccine is still estimated to have saved more than 40,000 people’s lives during this period. We’re working with a pretty giant U.S. population, so every little bit counts, a lot.

You also have to keep in mind that designing the vaccine is a tough job. If you check out an illustration of the flu virus, it looks something like a Koosh ball with a variety of spikes on it. Every year, the spikes on the virus are a little different, which means that your body needs to learn to make a new type of antibody to fight it. The flu folks at the World Health Organization announce their top three guesses at what the following season’s top three viruses will be in February. The WHO doesn’t mess around, and this is an extremely educated guess if there ever was one, but working with predictions several months out is bound to produce some failures.

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It depends on who you are

For some people that protection is still the best bet. If you’re a non-pregnant adult under 50, your immune system is in good shape, and you don’t have asthma, diabetes, or one of the other conditions that put you at risk for complications, you’ll probably survive the flu… or WILL you? (Kidding, you probably will.) You may look at the effectiveness history and choose to spend that time and money on a couple beers.

But if you are in the risky group, you want to be as protected as you can get. And if you’re one of those good people who work in the health field or take care of children or the elderly (or if you have contact with kids, or granny and gramps) you’d better be getting that vaccine -- otherwise you may end up being a jerk and giving the flu to someone for whom it can be serious. While the WHO might not say so, that’s just bad karma.

It’s not always a shot

It’s called a flu “shot,” but it doesn’t have to be an actual shot. Your choice depends on your age and other factors, like allergies and pregnancy. The two main options are the shot and the nasal spray, with the former being OK for a broad age range and for pregnant women, and safer for people with asthma. Meanwhile, the nasal spray is suitable for a more restricted population, plus it may cause a few more side effects. The spray is also less widely available, and tends to cost a couple bucks more. The other good one to be aware of is the recombinant shot, which is for those unfortunate individuals who are allergic to eggs.

It IS easy and cheap/free

To get a flu shot, you don’t really need free time, appointments, doctors, or insurance (but those are good, too). Heck, you barely even need money. You can walk into a pharmacy or health center whenever you feel so inspired, and bam, flu shot on the spot. There’s even a map that tells you how much it will cost to Uber it to the nearest flu shot source, which, if you’re feeling like you live in a dystopian futuristic world, is evidence of that. But it’s also convenient!

With insurance, you may be able to get a flu shot for free or with a small co-pay, but even completely out of pocket, you’ll most likely pay $30-something or less. If you can afford it, you might as well do it.

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Marina Komarovsky is a freelance writer for Thrillist who lives abroad and wishes that travel vaccines were as cheap as the one for flu. For more on public health, follow her tweets @MariKomarovsky.

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