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What Should You Know Before Getting a Flu Shot?

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Influenza, also known as the flu, is a contagious respiratory illness that is often mild but has the potential to be quite serious, even deadly. The flu is spread through tiny droplets produced by coughing or sneezing which can land on surfaces or be transmitted directly into the mouth or nose of persons nearby. Basic hygiene is a major factor in avoiding the flu, but there is also a vaccine available.

Each year, this disease kills over 4,500 people, but even if it doesn’t kill you, the symptoms can be pretty unpleasant – this is why most doctors recommend an annual flu shot. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fewer than 1 in 3 Americans aged 18 to 49 received a flu vaccine in the last year, but total estimates for all ages are closer to 5% to 20%[1]. Even if you get the flu shot, however, you could still end up getting sick – keep reading to learn how.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Influenza?

In most cases, symptoms of influenza come on rapidly. The most common signs and symptoms of flu include the following:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Headaches
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Fatigue

In children, additional symptoms may include vomiting and diarrhea. In most cases, you will develop symptoms between 1 and 4 days of being exposed to the virus, though the average is 2 days. Again, symptoms tend to come on all at once instead of developing gradually, but you can still spread the virus before you know you are sick. People are the most contagious between 3 and 4 days after being exposed, though you can technically be contagious as early as 1 day before your symptoms develop and as late as 5 to 7 days after exposure.

Could You Still Get Sick?

Getting an annual flu shot is the best way to protect yourself against influenza. It is not, however, a guarantee that you won’t get sick. It takes two weeks to develop immunity to the flu after you get the vaccine so, if you are exposed to the virus during that window, you could still develop symptoms. Many people misunderstand the flu vaccine and blame it for making them sick when, in reality, they were probably exposed to the virus right before or after getting the vaccine. Flu vaccines are made with killed virus, so it is incapable of transmitting disease.

If you develop flu-like symptoms after getting the vaccine, it is possible that it isn’t flu at all but something similar. Flu shots do not protect against the common cold, which sometimes presents with similar symptoms. Neither does it immunize you against pneumonia, bronchitis, or the stomach flu. You should also know that the flu shot only provides protection against a specific strain of influenza – one that researchers believe will be most responsible for the illness that season. Unfortunately, there is no surefire way to make such a prediction but even if the vaccine is created for the wrong strain, getting the flu shot may still lessen the severity of your symptoms if you do get sick[2].

What Else Do You Need to Know?

Before you get a vaccination of any kind or begin any type of medical therapy, you should know the risks. You have already learned that getting a flu shot cannot cause you to get sick, but you could still experience side effects such as redness, tenderness, or swelling at the injection site. You may also develop a low-grade fever, headache, and muscle aches. The risk of a flu shot causing any serious harm is very low, though there is a risk for allergic reaction in rare cases.

If you are going to get the flu shot, it is best to get it in the early fall before flu season really hits. Influenza activity typically peaks in January or February, however, so you could really get it anytime before that – just remember that it takes two weeks to establish immunity. In terms of who should get the flu shot, it is most highly recommended for anyone over the age of 6 months but especially for healthcare workers and people at high risk for complications from influenza. You should not get the flu vaccine if you have had a severe allergic reaction to it in the past or if you have a high fever[3].

Whether you get the flu shot or not, you should take some basic precautions to avoid sickness and to avoid spreading the disease to others. Frequently wash your hands with hot soapy water, especially before handling food and after sneezing or coughing. Make sure you are eating a varied diet of nutrient-rich and colorful foods as well and get plenty of sleep – both of these things are very important for keeping your body and your immune system strong.

[1] “Influenza.” CDC. <https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/flu.htm>
[2] Duda, Kristina. “Why You May Still Get Sick After a Flu Shot.” VeryWell. <https://www.verywell.com/why-did-i-get-sick-after-a-flu-shot-770535>
[3] “Seasonal Flu Shot.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. < https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/flushot.htm>

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