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by SCO faculty member Wil McGriff, OD, MPH
So you're probably wondering if you should get the flu vaccine. Here's the short answer: Yes! Here's the longer answer: This year, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it's especially important to get a flu vaccine. There are 3 main things I want you to know about the flu vaccine.
1. It's safe! You cannot get the flu from the vaccine because the vaccine does not contain any active flu virus. The virus parts used to make the vaccine are enough to activate your immune system to protect you if you do get exposed to the flu, but they are not enough to make you sick. If you have gotten sick after a previous vaccine or have family or friends who have gotten sick after a previous vaccine, it was not because of the vaccine. Either you were previously exposed to the flu and didn't have time for your body to develop a response from the vaccine, you happened to catch another one of the viruses that is common during the fall and winter, or you caught a version of the flu virus that was not included in that year's vaccine. Some people may have a mild fever or feel a little achy after the vaccine due to their immune system revving up to protect your body, but that is not an actual infection. Rarely, people can be allergic to the vaccine, but that is especially uncommon.
2. It's effective! Every year, the flu vaccine ingredients change depending on the major strains of the virus that are active around the world. And there are a lot of different strains. Scientists across the globe work together year-round to track flu infections and use that information to develop the vaccines. It's like a weather forecast. The scientists are looking at what is happening now and estimating what will happen in the next few months, based on the way flu seasons have developed in previous years. Because the ingredients of the vaccines are chosen in advance of the flu season, there is a chance that the vaccine doesn't exactly match the strains that turn out to be the most common during a flu season. But this doesn't mean you should skip the vaccine! Even if the vaccine doesn't match the strain you catch, the science clearly shows that you'll have a shorter infection with less severe symptoms if you've had the vaccine. I have experienced this personally. Two years ago, I got the vaccine and still got the flu, but it only lasted about 4 days. The last time I had the flu, I had not gotten the vaccine and my symptoms lasted for two weeks!
3. It's good for the community! Every year, intensive care units across the country start to fill up during flu season with people who develop severe cases of the flu. This year, our ICUs are already busy taking care of people with COVID-19 infections, and the hospitals could be overwhelmed if there are many extra cases from the flu. Just like wearing masks in public, the flu vaccine reduces the risk that you spread an infection to someone else. So, by protecting yourself from the flu, you're also protecting others. And our hospitals can focus on people who need to be hospitalized for other reasons like COVID-19.
So, keep washing your hands, wearing your masks, and get your flu shot! It truly does a body good.