Flu vaccine myths: An expert on 5 common misconceptions

It seems you can’t go anywhere these days without hearing someone talking about the flu — avoiding it, getting over it, or just worrying about it.

Recently, we have seen some of the worst influenza outbreaks in years. And it’s not just the flu virus that’s causing problems; there are also many flu myths that are keeping people from doing more to prevent it.

Here, Mayo Clinic infectious diseases and vaccine expert Gregory Poland, MD, dispels some of the most common flu (and flu vaccine) myths.

Seasonal influenza vaccine

Myth number 1: Flu vaccines can give me the flu

False. Injectable flu vaccines are composed of pieces of inactivated flu proteins — and it’s impossible for them to “cause” flu. The nasal spray vaccine has live flu organisms weakened so they cannot multiply or cause disease.

Myth number 2: Flu shots never work anyway, so why bother?

Also false. When there is a good match between the viruses causing disease and those in the vaccine, protection is excellent in otherwise healthy people. Protection is lower if you are unhealthy or in the frail elderly group.

But vaccines are like seat belts: They are not perfect, but they are the best protection we have against serious injury and death.

Myth number 3: Flu vaccines are dangerous, especially for pregnant women

False. Concerns about pregnant women getting vaccinated began back when women were advised not to get any kind of vaccination during pregnancy, Dr Poland says.

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Today’s flu vaccines are safe for expectant mothers and highly recommended. A recent large study demonstrated significant increases in maternal death among unvaccinated women infected with influenza. However, because they have not been studied in pregnant women, he says that pregnant women should stay away from nasal flu vaccines, which do contain live, weakened flu virus.

Myth number 4: It’s too late to get vaccinated

False. While it’s always better to get vaccinated before flu season begins — it can take about two weeks for the vaccination to take full effect — it’s never too late to get a flu vaccines. Even if you didn’t get vaccinated and caught the flu, get a flu vaccine to protect yourself against the other strains that are circulating, he says.

Myth number 5: It’s just the flu. What’s the big deal?

Once again, false.

While it might be “just” the flu, Dr Poland says we should still be concerned, regardless of our age or physical condition.

In an average year, up to 40,000 Americans die from influenza and its complications, and over 250,000 are hospitalized. Millions are sick, miss school, work, and important events and spend money on over-the-counter “cold remedies.” Complications and death are particularly frequent in infants and young children, those with chronic medical conditions, the elderly, pregnant women and people who are obese. (Health care providers also should get immunized to prevent spreading flu to vulnerable patients, he says.)

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“No one should confuse influenza with a “minor illness.” Serious complications and death result every year due to flu. Vaccines, while imperfect, offer the best protection available for you and your family, as well as others you come in contact with,” says Dr Poland.

Staying well in flu season and beyond
Dr Poland offers these tips for sidestepping illness:
  • Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently with soap and warm water or alcohol-based hand sanitizer, particularly before leaving a restroom, eating or touching your face. Wash your hands for about 20 seconds, about as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday.” (Myria tip: If you’re in a public bathroom, we recommend that you sing the song in your head.) When visiting a public restroom, use a paper towel to turn off the faucet and open the door when leaving.
  • Keep your vaccines up to date: Besides the seasonal flu shot, the most important ones include the MMR vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella and a relatively new vaccine called Tdap, for tetanus, diphtheria and acellular pertussis, or whooping cough.
  • Don’t smoke: It can make you more susceptible to illness in general.
  • Be an advocate for your health: If someone near you is ill, move away or ask to be reseated, if you can. If a server’s hands touch your food or the rim of your glass, don’t be embarrassed or hesitant about asking for a new serving and/or dish, or moving on and eating elsewhere.

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