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

We’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.

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

senior woman

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!

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.

pediatrics doctor

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.

mother checking daughters temperature on thermometer

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?

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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