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Should I Get a Flu Shot? – Effectiveness, Costs & Side Effects

By Heather Levin

get flu shotWe’ve all had it: an aching body, a sore throat, nausea, a fever, and chills. The dreaded flu season is upon us! Yuck.

Getting the flu is awful. Not only do you feel terrible, but it can cost a lot of money too. You might have to miss work or school and go to the doctor. Plus, if you don’t have health insurance, or have an emergency-only healthcare plan, it can mean hefty out-of-pocket expenses.

The flu can also be very serious, even deadly. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, each year 5%-20% of the population comes down with the flu. Of these people, over 200,000 are hospitalized from complications and 20,000-36,000 die. Children and the elderly are at the highest risk as 90% of deaths are children and people aged 65 and older.

However, you may be able to avoid all this with a simple flu shot. But is getting a flu shot worth it? Will it make you sick? Or will it protect you as promised?

Brief History of the Flu Shot

The first recorded flu pandemic occurred in 1580, but by far the worst pandemic of flu was the Spanish flu outbreak in 1918-1920. Worldwide, 500 million people got sick, and 20 million to 40 million people died from that strain alone.

However, the modern version of the flu vaccine was discovered in 1931 by Ernest Goodpasture and several other colleagues, all of whom were doing research at Vanderbilt University. But the first approved vaccine didn’t come about until World War II when the U.S. government began giving the vaccine to troops headed overseas.

Today, thanks to the continual research of doctors and scientists, we have a modern flu vaccine that is widely available and saves the lives of countless people every year.

flu shot syringe

Who Should Get a Flu Shot

According to the CDC, flu season runs from October to April, but January and February are when the virus peaks. A panel of virus experts voted just last year that the flu shot should be recommended to everyone. However, the CDC came out with a list detailing who in particular should get a flu shot each year:

  • All persons, including school-aged children, who want to reduce the risk of becoming ill with influenza or of transmitting the virus to others
  • All children aged 6-59 months (6 months – 4 years)
  • All adults 50 years of age or older
  • Pregnant women
  • Children and adolescents (aged 6 months – 18 years) receiving long-term aspirin therapy
  • Adults and children who have chronic pulmonary (including asthma), cardiovascular (except hypertension), renal, hepatic, hematological, or metabolic disorders (including diabetes)
  • Adults and children who have immunosuppression (including immunosuppression caused by medications or HIV)
  • Adults and children who have any condition that can compromise respiratory function or the handling of respiratory secretions or that can increase the risk for aspiration, such as cognitive dysfunction, spinal cord injuries, seizure disorders, or other neuromuscular disorders
  • Residents of nursing homes and other chronic-care facilities
  • Healthcare personnel
  • Healthy household contacts, such as family members, and caregivers of children under 5 years and adults over 50 years, with particular emphasis on vaccinating contacts of children under 6 months old
  • Healthy household contacts, such as family members, and caregivers of persons with medical conditions that put them at higher risk for severe complications from influenza

How It Works

The thought of willingly introducing a virus into your system might make you squirm. I know it does to me! But giving your body a “dumbed down” version of the flu in advance is how you’re protected when the real virus comes around. What do I mean by this?

The flu virus is prepared by infecting the fluids of chicken embryos with several strains of the virus, and then inactivating the virus with formaldehyde. According to the Mayo Clinic, inactive really means “dead.” When this dead virus enters your system, your body produces antibodies, cells that are like soldiers, that will help protect you from that particular strain for the next six months. When the live virus comes around, your body already has an army of well-equipped soldiers in place to fight it off. In other words, you don’t get sick!

Now, the influenza virus is tricky; it adapts rapidly. This means there’s always the chance that the virus will have mutated enough by the time you’re exposed, such that your body’s antibodies will no longer be effective against it. Picture your soldier cells showing up to battle for one enemy and finding a completely different enemy instead. They’re just not prepared to fight this new interloper! This is why some people still get the flu even after they’ve had a flu shot.

Important Note: If you’re allergic to chicken eggs, do not get a flu shot. Since the vaccine is created using egg embryos, it can cause a severe allergic reaction!

woman patient flu shot

Benefits of the Flu Shot

Ok, so now you know how the flu shot works. Is it worth it? Below is a list of benefits you’ll receive:

1. You Won’t Get Sick
The flu vaccine can protect you from getting the flu all season. Notice I said “can” and not “will.” As you already know, the flu shot is not 100% guaranteed. Most experts agree that the flu shot reduces your chance of getting sick with the virus by 70%-86%.

Just as important, however, the shot can also help the people around you. After all, you won’t be carrying the virus, so you won’t get others sick either. If you work with the public, with kids, or especially with sick or elderly individuals, you might not only save your own life, but their’s too by getting the flu shot.

There are plenty of studies to support that getting the flu shot really does make an impact. For instance, in 2006, the United States began recommending the flu vaccine for preschoolers. Canada, however, didn’t start this same recommendation until 2010. So researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital began comparing flu-related emergency room visits between Boston and Montreal. According to the study, which was published in The New York Times, giving the flu shot to children aged 2-4 years old reduced emergency room visits by 34%. Emergency room visits for children aged 5-18 dropped 18%. That’s pretty significant.

Pregnant mothers who get the flu shot will also pass on that protection to their babies; if their child will be born during the peak flu season, it could save their life if they’re exposed.

2. You’ll Often Save Money
The flu vaccine usually costs between $5-$20. However, consider how much you might have to spend on over-the-counter medications such as TheraFlu or NyQuil if you end up catching the virus. Think about how much you’ll have to spend on a doctor’s office visit (either the full cost or your co-pay) or for any prescription medications. And then there’s the time you’ll lose at work or school.

Does it ultimately pay off to get the flu shot? Well, there are a lot of factors to this question. Science Daily actually did an incredibly thorough breakdown of the cost and potential savings of the flu shot. Based on their analysis, the average person will save around $30 by getting a flu shot, especially if the flu season looks as if it will be severe. However, you can potentially save much more than this if you’re at high risk for complications, or if you work a job that doesn’t give you paid sick time.

Plus, developing complications from the virus can not only put you in the hospital and seriously endanger your life, but it can cost tens of thousands of dollars, especially if you’re uninsured.

senior man flu shot

Drawbacks of the Flu Shot

Are there any downsides to getting the flu shot? Like anything, of course there are.

1. Side Effects
Sometimes, getting the flu shot will give you side effects. Common side effects are:

  • Sore arm
  • Low-grade fever
  • Allergy-like symptoms such as cough, scratchy throat, and itchy eyes

It’s important to know that getting a flu shot will not make you sick with the flu. Flu shots contain the dead virus; there’s no way they can make you sick. However, if you receive a weakened, live-virus inoculation like the nasal spray there’s a chance you could come down with a full-blown case of the flu. Common side effects here are:

  • Chills or fever
  • Aches
  • Runny nose or nasal congestion
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Wheezing
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Sore throat

2. Developing Guillain-Barre Syndrome 
In 1976, the CDC linked the flu vaccination with Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS), a disorder that causes the immune system to mistakenly attack the body’s own nervous system, causing inflammation and muscle weakness. Although there haven’t been any subsequent links between GBS and the flu shot since then, the CDC estimates that 1-2 people out of every one million vaccinated could develop GBS.

3. Mercury Exposure
Much of the controversy surrounding the flu shot has to do with the chemical that is used to preserve the vaccine, thimerasol. This compound is administered with the shot itself and consists of 50% mercury by weight. Mercury is a neurotoxin that can damage the brain, kidney, and lungs and can also inhibit their development in children. It is hard to get a straight answer regarding how this amount of mercury consumption can injure you. However, concern over its effects has led the FDA to stop approving any drugs that contain thimerasol, other than the flu shot.

But what you need to know is that since 2001, no single-use flu shot vaccines contain thimerasol. The CDC states that only multi-use vials of the vaccine contain trace amounts of thimerasol, which is used to prevent contamination of the vials once opened. So if you’re concerned about thimerasol and trace mercury exposure, make sure your flu vaccine is sourced from a single-use and not a multi-use vial. You can read more about the use of thimerasol in vaccines at the CDC website.

4. Potential Ineffectiveness
The doctors and researchers who develop each year’s flu shot have a very difficult job. They have to anticipate which flu strain is going to be making the rounds each year. But they must often do this a year or more in advance. They pick the three strains they believe are most likely to show up each year, which is why vaccines have three different strains of the virus. In fact, much of the time, thanks to advanced computer modeling, they get it right and develop a flu vaccine that is effective against the strain that is making everyone sick.

Sometimes, however, the experts at the CDC get things wrong entirely and give us a strain that never shows up. For example, the CDC admitted that they completely missed the Fujian flu strain that hit so hard over the winter of 2004. People who got the flu shot that year were completely unprotected from that strain. In other words, there are no guarantees.

Final Word

Deciding whether or not to get a flu shot is a highly personal decision. A lot depends on your own health, your lifestyle factors, and what you do for a living. As I said before, there’s no guarantee that the shot will protect you 100%.

If you do decide to get the flu shot, the best time to get it is in the fall season, before the live strains really hit the population hard. It takes several weeks after inoculation for your body to build up the antibodies it needs to fight off the live strains, so getting a shot in January or February won’t do you much good! Experts say that early to mid fall is the best time to get the flu shot.

Did you get the flu shot this year? Is it worth the risk and expense to get one?

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a freelance writer based in Detroit, MI. She's passionately committed to living green, saving money, and helping others do the same in their life.

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Comments

  • http://ziprage.com Kevin Curry

    I work in health care and I need to refute a few of your points.

    1. The mercury in a flu shot is basically negligible. If you feel that you can safely eat a can of Tuna fish (which contains on average 20mcg of Mercury) then you can handle a flew shot (contains 25mcg of Mercury in Adult dosage form).

    2. Washing your hands, exercise and diet are helpful sure, but they are much more helpful at preventing the common cold than they are the flu.

    3. The theory linking flu shots to a greatly increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease was proposed by a U.S. doctor whose license was suspended by the South Carolina Board of Medical Examiners. Several mainstream studies link flu shots and other vaccinations to a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease and overall better health.

    a. A Nov. 27, 2001, Canadian Medical Journal report suggests older adults who were vaccinated against diphtheria or tetanus, polio, and influenza seemed to have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease than those not receiving these vaccinations.

    b. A report in the Nov. 3, 2004, JAMA found that annual flu shots for older adults were associated with a reduced risk of death from all causes.

    4. The flu kills an estimated 20-35k a year, car accidents kill 45-60k. If you think a flu shot isn’t worth getting I would compare your decision, especially if you are in a high risk health category, to driving without a seat belt.

    You can find a flu shot for $15 to $25. It has been proven to do far more good than harm to your health and the collective health of society. I can find no reason, backed by “real” scientific or medical journals to not get a flu shot.

    • David/moneycrashers

      Kebin

      Thanks for all of your points, they are all very well taken.

      As you can see, it seems to be a very polarizing issue.

      I realy appreciate your relevant commentary!

      • Kira

        There’s a difference between a polarizing opinion, and reporting fiction as fact….

  • not given

    Alzheimer’s has been speculated to be related to diabetes, diabetes of the brain. ALL diabetics are urged by the government, their doctors, their insurance companies to get every flu shot that comes along. Corellation is not causation

  • Maggie

    I thought about it and was even in a room yesterday where I could have walked in and gotten one. And I find that the first commenter made an interesting point in comparing the amount of Mercury in Tuna to the amount in the vaccine.

    My decision not to seek out the shot for myself and my boys is because 1) We are all health and rarely get sick. 2) We do not spend a lot of time with anyone who has a compromised immune system for who the flu woudl be quite dangerous.

    If I did spend any amount of time around someone who did have a compromised immune system or if we seemed to get every virus that comes down the pike, I’d make a different decision. But I do reconisder it each year. (My husband can make his own decision. He is mroe sucpetable to catching the latest virus of the day and he has been traveling a lot. A Flu vaccination might make sense for him this year.)

    • Kira Botkin

      You don’t have to spend much time at all around an immunocompromised person to give them your illnesses. They have to go to the grocery store and the gas station too.

    • http://www.makelovenotdebt.com/ Him and Her

      Can you be sure that you will never encounter an immunocompromised person? No babies? No elderly?

      Also, just because you’re healthy doesn’t mean that you can’t pass it along.

  • Stacey K

    According to the CDC, annual flu deaths have fluctuated: “Over a period of 30 years, between 1976 and 2006, estimates of flu-associated deaths range from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000 people.”

    (source: http://www.cdc.gov/flu/keyfacts.htm)

    They (the CDC) have changed their tune from claiming that flu deaths are consistently at the high level that Kevin Curry claims. See this Reuter’s article: http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE67P3NA20100826.

    • Guest

      The number of flu-related deaths are still high enough for it to be the eighth leading cause of death
      http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/lcod.htm

  • http://www.howisavemoney.net Lulu

    I have never taken the flu shot and just for personal reasons. I have kept up to date with all my immunizations (my mother was a nurse) and I go to my doctor and dentist regularly so I am not averse to hospitals or medicine….I just don’t take the flu shot. Part of my reasoning is that the flu is always mutating so unlike a regular immunization I do not think it is worth it.

  • Heather Dykeman

    This certainly is quite an interesting isue and I am glad to see it adressed here.
    I have very mixed feelings about the flu shot. At my age (42) I am open to it, However,
    I would be very concerned about my children starting to take a yearly dose of a vaccine when they may be better off developing their own antibodies to different infections. I was very healthy growing up, my sister took antibiotics for everything. There is a marked difference in our health and our kids health. I am a bit leery by nature (OK slightly paranoid, LOL) with things like this. History reveals that government and the big Pharma companies do not always have the best interests in mind of the public. That is a fact and nobody can refute it. To say it is all “different nowadays” is to be naive.
    That said, drugs have their place and medical science continues to advance and make astonishing discoveries and there are amazing drugs on the market for all sorts of maladies and allictions.
    I think that it is really a matter of personal preference, and not being closed minded either way…. Go with your gut feeling and trust your own instincts….

    • David/moneycrashers

      Heather

      Thanks for commenting. You couldn’t have crystallized my thoughts any better. That’s basically how I feeel on the topic myself. Though apparently this was misconstrued by a lot of commenters.

      It was an opinion piece, so when I was accused of “reporting fiction as fact”, I bascially gave up responding to the other commenters.

      Obviously, everyone is entitled to their opinion, and mine is about just the same as yours. I see both sides of the issue, and coudl go either way. But I have differeing thoughts on the shot for myself personally and getting the shot for my son.

      Thnaks again for your level-headed remarks!

      • Sergio

        Mr. Bakke,

        You are entitled to have your own opinion, you are not entitled to your own facts.

        Would you care to share the sources?

        Respectfully,

        Sergio

    • http://ziprage.com Kevin Curry

      I have to pipe up again. There is a marked difference between how a vaccination and an antibiotic work. Antibiotics are overused. Overuse of antibiotics and improper use (not finishing your entire round for example) allow bacteria to gain immunities to antibiotics and confer those immunities to other bacteria. Also using antibiotics kills natural flora found everywhere from the GI tract to the skin which can impact health for a lifetime.

      Vaccines don’t work by this mechanism, at all. Vaccines confer a natural immunity in your body. You create the immunity through a cascade of event in you immune system and thus have the ability to fight off future infection.

      Basically Antibiotics kill the bacteria for you, vaccines give your body the tools to fight off the virus for you.

      And really big pharma tin foil hat stuff just doesn’t add up, especially for vaccines. The profits for vaccinations are laughably low for vaccines vs. lets say the little blue pill. It’s not something they are trying to push, rather it’s healthcare professionals trying to push it for the common good of the people through a well known mechanism known as herd immunity.

  • Julieann

    I’m not getting a flu shot (age 56); and only because half of the flu shots are not working properly to prevent you from getting sick. Even on the news stating that they don’t work. They’re just after the money! I even had leukemia and cancer 5 years ago.

  • Guest

    Interesting topic. My employer is REQUIRING the flu vaccine as a condition of employment.

    Each employee has 5 choices –
    1) Flu vaccination provided free of charge by employer
    2) Flu vaccine at provider of choice with documentation to prove it was received
    3) Letter from medical provider stating you cannot have flu vaccine for medical reasons (ie. documented allergy)
    4) Letter from religious leader including written doctrine as to why you cannot receive the flu vaccine
    5) Termination of employment December 31st if one of these conditions has not been met.

    This company employs over 26,000 people and has an extensive legal team so I believe that this is legal.

    I’m completely fine with receiving the flu vaccine. But I do not appreciate having to choose between vaccination and employment.

    • Harmony

      I am writing a research paper on the flu shot and if it is worth the potential risks or not. Would you mind telling me what company you work for that is requiring that everyone is vaccinated?

  • http://afford-anything.com Paula Pant

    I’m getting one, but I’m not making the mistake of getting it at the doctors office this year. I did that last year and it cost me $100. This year I’m heading to CostCo or Walgreens where I can get it for $20

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