The 2014-15 flu season was a particularly bad one, in part because public health officials who developed the flu vaccine miscalculated which flu strains would be circulating during the season, which typically runs from October through February. "The flu vaccine distributed during the 2014-15 season was only 18% effective [in adults] against the H3N2 strain of flu," a newly emerged type of flu virus scientists hadn't seen before it appeared during the height of the flu season, explains Michelle Katz, LPN, MSN, a Los Angeles-based nurse and patient educator who frequently appears on national TV programs like “ABC World News Tonight” and “The Doctors.” Katz adds that the vaccine was even less effective against H3N2 in children, leading to widespread, severe epidemics this past fall and winter that sent many kids to the hospital and shut down hundreds of schools across the country.
Because many people who got the flu this year had been vaccinated, some are questioning whether they should bother with flu vaccine at all. Fortunately, Katz says that the country will be far better prepared in the future. "Flu shots will probably be adjusted to include [H3N2] and other strains next year," she says.
Not only that, even a flu vaccine for the wrong strain still has value, says Victoria Greenberg, RN, MSN, FNP-BC, a nationally board-certified family nurse practitioner and manager of the Family Nurse Practitioner program at the University of Phoenix Southern California Campus in Costa Mesa, CA. "Even when the virus [strains] are not closely matched, the vaccine can still lessen the severity of illness," Greenberg explains.
While flu vaccines are usually effective at preventing this sneezy, drippy, achy, pukey (and highly contagious) illness, not everyone can be safely vaccinated. Here are four important things to know about the flu shot:
1. The flu can make you very sick, so why not prevent it?
Even the healthiest person can miss a week or more of school or work thanks to the flu. Not only that, people with asthma or other chronic respiratory diseases, children, pregnant women, and the elderly are at increased risk for developing flu complications. "The flu vaccine may reduce the risk of serious outcomes of the flu, including hospitalization and death," Greenberg points out.
Of note, the vaccine is not always 100% effective even against correctly matched strains, Greenberg adds. "Various factors can affect the [overall] effectiveness of the flu shot, such as the age and health of the person getting the shot," she says. Even so, Greenberg says it's worth getting the vaccine just to make the flu less bad if you do still end up catching it anyway.
"Even when the virus [strains] are not closely matched, the vaccine can still lessen the severity of illness."
2. Flu vaccines have minimal side effects.
The common notion that flu shots can cause the flu is a myth, Greenberg stresses. "The flu shot does not give you the flu," she says. However, it can cause some mild symptoms that are similar to a cold—such as a low-grade fever, mild body aches, cough, or sore throat. Some people experience some redness or mild swelling at the injection site for a day or so after receiving a flu injection, Katz adds.
3. Don't like shots? No problem.
Speaking of injections, not everyone has to get a shot to receive a flu vaccine. If needles aren't your thing, the vaccine is also available as a nasal mist. However, Greenberg stresses that not everyone is eligible for this option because, unlike the injection, the nasal mist vaccine contains live flu virus. "Pregnant women, children under age 2, and those with preexisting medical conditions such as asthma, liver disease and kidney disease, or those who have received antiviral flu medications [like Tamiflu] within the past 48 hours, cannot receive the nasal mist vaccine," she says. Persons with compromised immune systems—such as those with HIV/AIDS or persons on chemotherapy— are also ineligible for the nasal mist, as are their caregivers, Greenberg adds.
For those who can receive the nasal mist, the most common side effect is an itchy, runny nose.
4. Flu shots are a good idea for almost everyone—with some exceptions.
While the vast majority of people can benefit from a flu shot, a small number cannot be safely vaccinated. "People who have previously had a severe allergic reaction to the flu vaccine or any of its ingredients should not have a flu shot," Katz stresses. That includes eggs, gelatin, and certain antibiotics. If you're not sure whether your existing allergies also include flu vaccine components, ask your doctor.
In addition, anybody who has had Guillain-Barré Syndrome (a rare neurological disorder), is currently sick, or is under 6 months of age should not have the flu vaccine, Greenberg notes.
5. They're usually free.
Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, there is no out-of-pocket cost for most preventive healthcare services, so long as you currently have health insurance—and the flu vaccine is preventive health care. You can get a free flu shot at your doctor's office (though you may have to pay a copay for the office visit), at your local pharmacy (the pharmacist or a nurse may administer the shot there), or at a local walk-in clinic. Many local community centers do flu-shot events just before and during flu season, and many employers also offer them to their employees at work free of charge. Some health insurers also sponsor flu vaccine events for their policyholders.
Getting the flu vaccine takes only a few minutes, usually at no cost to you. But not getting one can cost you plenty—missed work, medicine, and maybe even a hospital stay. As long as you can get one safely, there's no excuse not to, Greenberg stresses: "Get yearly flu shots!"