Should I Get the Flu Shot?

It's that time of year where you're asking yourself:  "should I get the flu shot?"  Every fall and winter we are told that the viruses that cause the common cold and flu are out of control and that the next pandemic will sweep across the world, killing anything in its path. Not to mention hit movies such as Contagion declaring this as a very real possibility. This leaves me with one question: should I get the flu shot? I mean even President Obama gets it...

To answer this question, we have to take a look at a few things.
Firstly, since 2010 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended that everyone over the age of 6 months get the flu shot annually. There are also some population groups that are at higher risk for developing complications from the flu**:
  • Kids younger than 5 years old
  • Adults 65 and older
  • Pregnant women
  • The immunocompromised (ie. those with HIV, AIDS, cancer, etc.)
  • Those with pre-existing medical conditions (ie asthma, chronic lung disease, heart disease)
  • Health care workers (doctors, nurses, etc)
  • People who live with high risk people
**For a complete list click on the CDC link above

One common issue with flu shots is potential side effects. We’ve all heard horror stories about controversial medical anomalies that occurred after getting the flu vaccination, for example the woman who developed dystonia (a rare neuromuscular condition). Other conditions that affect the brain have been reported to be associated with mercury, an ingredient found in some flu vaccines.

While those side effects are extremely rare, you may experience some of the following symptoms after getting the flu shot:
  • Soreness, swelling, or redness around the site of injection (most common)
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches or weakness
So is it really necessary for everyone to get vaccinated? How effective is the flu shot in preventing the flu? The results are mixed.   There are several studies done in high-risk people such as the elderly and those with certain medical conditions that show that the flu shot may help prevent death and hospitalizations (from any cause, not just the flu). And what about in healthy people? One large review showed that when the vaccine administered matched the virus in circulation, 3% more of unvaccinated people got the flu compared to vaccinated people.

Another common concern is that those who do get vaccinated can still get the flu.  The flu shot is not able to completely prevent you from getting the flu.  Instead, its effects may be to decrease the severity of the flu if you do get it.  In response to the question "how effective is the flu shot," the CDC says that it depends on the following 3 criteria:
  • Your age
  • Your health status
  • The similarity between the virus(es) in the vaccine and those in circulation
The last criteria is particularly interesting.  There is no guarantee that the viruses in the flu shot will match the current virus strains causing this year's flu.

So where does this leave us?  Long story short, ask questions and get educated about the flu shot by talking to your ND or primary healthcare provider to determine if the flu shot is a good option for you. 

Stay tuned to see what options you have for cold and flu prevention this season....

All the best,
Christine Cho

Photo from
Chan TC, Hung IF, Luk JK, Shea YF, et al. Efficacy of dual vaccination of pandemic H1N1 2009 influenza and seasonal influenza on institutionalized elderly: A one-year prospective cohort study. Vaccine. 2011 Aug 5.
Clements KM, Chancellor J, Nichol K, Delong K, Thompson D. Cost-effectiveness of a recommendation of universal mass vaccination for seasonal influenza in the United States. Value Health. Sep-Oct; 14(6): 800- 11.
Jefferson T, Di Pietrantonj C, Rivetti A, Bawazeer GA, Al-Ansary LA, Ferroni E. Vaccines for preventing influenza in healthy adults. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2010, Issue 7. Art. No.: CD001269. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD001269.pub4.


Anonymous said...

This is one excellent article, Christine Cho. I thoroughly enjoyed how you provided a balanced analysis of both sides of this complicated issue. I also thought the use of Mr President Barack Obama was a clever tactic to engage the reader...once I saw his picture it was like a vortex of emotion compelling me to learn more!


an avocado a day said...

Thank you for your feedback! Much appreciated!

Anonymous said...

I really want to see a follow up on if you get sick or not!

Christine Cho said...

You got it! I will definitely follow up!

Anonymous said...

I am glad that you pointed out the most common side effects of the vaccine are mild and not serious.

I believe it is your choice to get vaccinated or not. However, you outlined some high risk groups that can get serious complications from the flu. As you are a student in naturopathic medicine I assume that you may come into contact with some of these individuals. By getting vaccinated, you you could help protect these patients and your family members. In fact, the CDC recommends that all health care workers get an annual flu vaccine.

Christine Cho said...

Great comment! I definitely understand where you are coming from. As a 3rd year student, I am currently not seeing any patients. However, I would agree that in circumstances where healthcare practitioners are in contact with higher risk patients or at higher risk themselves (ie hospitals vs private practice), getting the flu shot should be considered more seriously. From my research I have seen that only 40-50% of doctors (I’m assuming mostly MDs) get vaccinated, and there are definitely people that argue that more doctors should get the flu shot. I am not sure what percentage of influenza cases can be attributed to iatrogenic causes, but that would definitely be an interesting study! I’m also curious as to why more MDs/NDs choose not to get vaccinated—I’m sure much of it has to do with personal beliefs and risk assessment. In any case, I do appreciate your comment and thanks for reading!

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