What’s the point? Why would anyone even consider getting a flu shot every year? The health care brainiacs tell us that flu shots help prevent people from catching the flu in the first place, or at least make flu symptoms less severe if we do come down with it. Turns out there is good reason to want to avoid it because it can be nasty and dangerous. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
“In general, flu is worse than the common cold, and symptoms are more intense. Colds are usually milder than flu. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose. Colds generally do not result in serious health problems, such as pneumonia, bacterial infections, or hospitalizations. Flu can have very serious associated complications.”
The flu usually comes on suddenly. People who are sick with flu often feel some or all of these symptoms:
Fever or feeling feverish/chills (note that fever is not always present)
Runny or stuffy nose
Muscle or body aches
Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults.
Most people who come down with the flu recover in a few days or might take as long as a couple of weeks, but some people develop complications that are life-threatening or fatal. On the less serious side of the complications spectrum are sinus and ear infections. On the more serious side of the spectrum the possible complications are much more frightening. According to the CDC:
“...pneumonia is a serious flu complication that can result from either influenza virus infection alone or from co-infection of flu virus and bacteria. Other possible serious complications triggered by flu can include inflammation of the heart (myocarditis), brain (encephalitis) or muscle (myositis, rhabdomyolysis) tissues, and multi-organ failure (for example, respiratory and kidney failure). Flu virus infection of the respiratory tract can trigger an extreme inflammatory response in the body and can lead to sepsis, the body’s life-threatening response to infection. Flu also can make chronic medical problems worse. For example, people with asthma may experience asthma attacks while they have flu, and people with chronic heart disease may experience a worsening of this condition triggered by flu.”
Anyone at any age can get come down with the flu and develop serious, even fatal medical complications, but some people are at higher risk than others of developing serious flu-related complications if they get sick. These high-risk groups include:
people 65 years and older,
people of any age with certain chronic medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, or heart disease),
pregnant women and
children younger than 5 years, but especially those younger than 2 years old.
So, how has this played out nationally?
“CDC estimates that the burden of illness during the 2018–2019 season included an estimated 35.5 million people getting sick with influenza [and feeling really crappy! –LDW], 16.5 million people going to a health care provider for their illness, 490,600 hospitalizations, and 34,200 deaths from influenza.”
Every year the toll on children is especially tragic. The CDC reports that in the last flu season, 2018-2019, more than 46,000 hospitalizations occurred in children under the age of 18, and there were approximately 480 deaths associated with influenza in children during that same period.
So, the bottom line is that the seasonal flu is not as dangerous as COVID, but it is still plenty bad. The big zinger for this flu season, 2020-2021, is that we are going to have them both together! This is bad news for two reasons. The first is that some people, perhaps thousands of people, will have both at the same time, with the potential for a disastrous health outcome. The second issue is what really keeps the CDC scientists up at night. As fall progresses into winter and the flu season ramps up as it does every year, the rate of COVID infections may also expand way beyond where it is now. The two raging infectious diseases together could easily overwhelm hospitals across the United States in a crisis unprecedented in modern history.
Now, the $64,000 question (oops, showing my age, that's from a television quiz show popular in the 1950s), does the flu vaccine offered every year actually make a difference? Turns out it does. According to the CDC,
“Flu vaccine prevents millions of illnesses and flu-related doctor’s visits each year. For example, during 2018-2019, flu vaccination prevented an estimated 4.4 million influenza illnesses, 2.3 million influenza-associated medical visits, 58,000 influenza-associated hospitalizations, and 3,500 influenza-associated deaths. During seasons when the flu vaccine viruses are similar to circulating flu viruses, flu vaccine has been shown to reduce the risk of having to go to the doctor with flu by 40 percent to 60 percent.”
That’s the context. Now to the main question, “What are the best reasons NOT to get a flu shot?” In light of the above, they would have to be pretty damn good reasons. SPOILER ALERT: they are not. Here are some of the main allegations:
“Vaccines contain dangerous chemicals.” Many vaccines contain chemicals like mercury, aluminum, or formaldehyde which act as preservatives or effectiveness enhancers. The amounts are infinitesimal and are not considered toxic. Mercury was removed from almost all childhood vaccines in 2001 due to public pressure.
“It is better to develop the immune system ‘naturally.’” A natural infection might provide better immunity than vaccination, but the infection itself can cause serious, even fatal consequences. Vaccines introduce a weakened form of virus into your body so that your system learns to identify infectious agents and defend against them.
“Vaccines give you allergies.” No evidence.
“Vaccines give kids autism.” In the 1990's a paper was published that alleged a link between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. The study sample size was only 12 children. The study was later determined to be faulty. The principle researcher lost his medical license, and 10 of 13 of the paper's original authors refuted and retracted their original statements. Subsequent studies have found no such link.
“Flu shots are only 40% to 60% effective.” True. Some people who get flu shots will come down with the flu, however studies demonstrate that vaccinated flu victims usually have a less severe form of the infection. One final important note: Getting no vaccination is 0% effective.
Bottom line: get your shots now! Still teetering on the edge? See: cdc.gov/Flu or mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/flu/symptoms-causes/syc-20351719.