To Flu Shot or Not to Flu Shot

For me, there’s never any question.

As a doctor, I get a lot of questions about vaccines. Are they safe? Can I catch the flu from my flu shot? Are vaccines a conspiracy between Big Pharma and doctors to make billions of dollars?

In order: yes, no and no. (Or at least I’ve never seen a dime of that legendary Pharma cash. I’m still in six-figure debt from medical school, thanks.)

I don’t go to the doctor often. Physician, heal thyself, right? But every year, at the beginning of flu season, I present faithfully for my flu shot and whatever booster vaccines I might be eligible for that year. I’m not overly concerned about myself; I’m healthy and would probably survive the flu with only a week or so of misery.

I get my flu shot for my neighbors.

I live near a couple in their 80s, with fragile immune systems and a host of medical issues. They’re polite and never fail to wave and make small talk when they see me outside. If I caught the flu and passed it to them, their odds of flu-related death would be far higher than mine.

Another set of neighbors are a married couple with two children. Both women are in healthcare and get their own flu shots, and their toddler just got his, but their new baby is only three months old. The flu vaccine is recommended for children six months of age and older, but this little one’s only protections are maternal antibodies and adults who vaccinate.

The most common strands of influenza virus change every year, so a yearly flu shot is a chance for medicine to try and keep up with antigenic drift. Even if you’re unlucky enough to catch a strain not included in the vaccine, you can still benefit from cross-protection against different but related strains of the flu virus. It takes about two weeks for your body to build up its immune response to the flu. That’s one reason it’s a good idea to get your flu shot early: it lowers the risk that you’ll be exposed to the flu before your vaccine has “kicked in.”

And when you go to get your flu vaccine, ask your doctor if you might be due for any other vaccinations. I scored a bonus tetanus/diphtheria/pertussis booster: three life-saving vaccines for the price of one!

For more information on influenza vaccines, visit the CDC.

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