“Do I really need to get a flu shot?”

—Leah, Houghton, Michigan

Yes.

A big yes if you are in one of these categories:

  • You are at higher risk for complications from influenza (the flu); for example, you have asthma or any other chronic lung issue.
  • You are at higher risk for complications of infections; for example, if you are immune compromised because of illness (immune deficiency, diabetes) or treatment (some people with Crohn’s disease, for example, use medications that suppress the immune system).
  • You have sickle cell disease.
  • You are pregnant.
  • You are of American Indian or Native Alaskan descent.

And a strong yes if you are in one of these categories:

  • You are a student in a residential setting. Adolescents tend to congregate. When they congregate, they tend to share things like food and hugs and kisses. This kind of close interaction, wonderful as it may be in many regards, is very effective at transmitting illnesses.
  • If you like the idea of avoiding feeling miserable for a week to 10 days. Influenza can be brutal. Flu symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, and fatigue. Most students with flu are unable to attend class or even keep up with reading/studying for several days. Complications of influenza can include sinus infections, ear infections, pneumonia, and more serious conditions.

The influenza virus is highly contagious and has three particularly devious traits:

  • It can be spread in the day before onset of symptoms—before the affected individual feels sick enough to separate themselves from others.
  • It can be spread to someone as far as six feet away (cover that cough!). Here’s what the CDC website says: “Most experts think that flu viruses are spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze, or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.”
  • It can last a long time on surfaces; particles ejected by an uncovered cough or sneeze can land on a counter or tabletop and survive there for a day or two. If an unsuspecting person touches that surface, and then touches a mucus membrane such as the eye or mouth, they can get infected by the virus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), our national public health authority, makes a clear recommendation for getting an annual flu shot: “CDC recommends a yearly flu vaccine for everyone 6 months and older. Vaccination can reduce flu illnesses, doctors’ visits, and missed work and school due to flu illness, as well as prevent flu-related hospitalizations.”

Does the flu shot have a downside?

There aren’t really any significant downsides to influenza vaccination. It is usually covered by insurance or is inexpensive. It has minimal side effects: sometimes a little soreness in the arm for a day or two, sometimes some fever and mild muscle aches for a day. The two vaccine types available as flu shots are not capable of causing influenza. If you just can’t tolerate shots, you can also get the vaccine via a nasal spray.

Each year, a new flu shot is available that provides protection from the influenza viruses that are expected to circulate widely that season. The 2015–16 flu shot was a very good match for the types of flu that were circulating. The match is not always perfect, but even if the flu vaccine doesn’t contain the influenza virus that you are exposed to, it may make an influenza infection less intense and shorter than it would otherwise have been.

Unfortunately, the protection we get from a flu vaccine wanes within a year. An annual vaccination is needed to get the best protection against the flu. On the plus side, young healthy people get a strong, relatively long-lasting immune response from influenza vaccine. Get yours in September before you are at risk of exposure and while supplies are plentiful.

How to avoid spreading the flu to others—guidance from the CDC:

  • Stay away from sick people and stay home if you are sick.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Thoroughly wash the bed linens, eating utensils, and dishes belonging to those who are sick before sharing these items with others. Eating utensils can be washed either in a dishwasher or by hand with soap and water.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at home, work, and school, especially if someone is ill.

Find fine flu facts (CDC)