A doctor holds a chalk board that says "get your flu shot"

For many people who are debating whether or not to get their influenza vaccine, or “flu shot,” the biggest factor in deciding whether or not the flu shot seems worth it for them are the side effects of a flu shot versus the possibility of getting the flu. However, the two really aren’t comparable.

According to the CDC, at least 12,000 and up to 79,000 people a year have died from the flu since 2010 in the U.S. alone. In contrast, the flu shot has an extremely small chance of causing death or any other serious harm. Those who do see serious side effects from the flu shot are most often those who have an allergic reaction. If you’re leaning towards not getting a flu shot, please take into consideration the potential risks of a flu shot versus risks of contracting the flu.

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Potential Side Effects and Reactions to The Flu Shot

As with any vaccine, there is potential for the flu vaccine to have negative consequences for those who choose to get vaccinated. However, the minimal impact of most flu shot side effects coupled with the extremely low chance of more serious side effects makes for a clear choice in determining whether it’s riskier to get the shot than the actual flu.

Side Effects That Everyone Could Experience

These side effects could happen to anyone, based on a variety of factors:

  • Soreness/ Tenderness
  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Low-Grade Fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle Aches

Since these are side effects that could happen to most people on any given day, the chance of briefly experiencing them should be outweighed by the chance of serious illness from the flu.

Rare High-Risk Side Effects of the Flu Shot

In extremely rare cases, there are more serious complications that occur because of the flu shot, but they are for the most part limited to people who have an allergic reaction to the influenza vaccine. These reactions come relatively quickly — within a few minutes to a few hours. Even when an allergic reaction does occur, more serious ones are rare. You should always let your physician — or whoever is injecting you — know if you do have a history of reaction to the flu shot. If it’s your first flu shot, then be sure to let them know about any other allergies because there are some relatively common allergens within the flu shot, such as egg protein.

Aside from allergic reactions, the only serious side effect known of the influenza vaccine is Guillain-Barré Syndrome. This disorder is extremely rare — about 1.5 people per million vaccinations — and most people who get it make a full recovery.

Getting the Flu After Vaccination

The flu vaccine does not absolve you from the risk of getting the flu. While it can greatly lower your risk, the flu is an ever-changing and complicated virus with many different strains. There is always a chance that the strains that are accounted for within the vaccine — usually the four most prevalent for that year — will have evolved in your area or that you’ll catch a strain of the virus that isn’t accounted for within that year’s current flu shot formula.

There are rare exceptions where a person who’s been vaccinated can still come down with one of the different flu strains that the vaccine does account for. As with many medical treatments, the protection offered by the flu vaccine can vary widely from person to person based on factors such as health and age. However, there is never a time when the flu vaccine can increase your risk of getting the flu.

It is a common misconception that the flu can be caused by the flu shot. This may be because some of the milder side effects of the flu shot are being mistaken for a case of the flu. In the rare cases that all the symptoms of headache, muscle aches, and fever occur together following a vaccination, they last for no more than two days and are much less severe than the actual flu. If you do get the flu immediately following a flu shot, then it is much more likely that you contracted the virus shortly before your immunization, before the symptoms could show.

The Protection Offered When You Do Get the Flu

If you do come down with the flu after being vaccinated, it may still prove to have been beneficial, as studies have shown that those who get the virus after having taken the flu shot died at a lower rate, made less trips to the ICU, spent less time in the ICU, and spent less time in the hospital overall.

Overall, the flu shot is very safe for most people. The same can’t be said of the influenza virus.

Signs, Symptoms, and Risk Factors of The Flu

Influenza is a virus that attacks your respiratory system, and although “the flu” is common nomenclature, it bears no relation to viruses that are commonly referred to as “stomach flu.” For many people, the virus could resolve itself on the strength of their immune system, but some people are at particularly high risk for more serious complications. Whatever your age or health status, however, the potential for the flu to be deadly should be taken seriously.

Those at a Higher Risk of Getting the Flu

Some people are at a higher risk of getting the flu than others. Many of these risk factors relate to things like age or other factors that tend to increase the risk of most illnesses. However, there are some that have more to do with lifestyle. Risk factors associated with higher rates of flu or higher rates of complications include:

  • Age — Those under the age of five — and especially under the age of 12 — as well as those over the age of 65, have a significantly higher chance of getting the flu because of compromised immune systems.
  • Pregnancy — Women who are currently pregnant and those who are in early postpartum are more likely to experience complications of the flu.
  • Living and working conditions — People who live in close quarters with many other people, especially those who are predisposed to the flu in other ways, are at a much greater risk of coming down with the flu. Depending on the demographics of the group you’re living in, this could make you more susceptible to complications of the flu as well.
  • Weakened immune systems — Those who have undergone certain medical treatments recently, such as cancer treatments and organ transplants, as well as those with an ongoing immune disease or certain ongoing medications will have a compromised immune system and are thus more likely to contract the flu and have complications from it.
  • Chronic illnesses — Certain chronic illnesses such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease, airway abnormalities, various lung conditions, and blood, liver, or kidney disease could increase your risk of flu complications.
  • Aspirin therapy — If someone is under the age of 19 and on long-term aspirin therapy then they run the risk of developing Reye’s syndrome — which can cause brain damage — if they come down with the flu.
  • Obesity — A BMI over 40 puts you at an increased risk of complications from influenza.

As you can see, the risk factors related to getting the flu and taking on the complications from it are abundant. These people especially should be considering a flu shot.

Signs and Symptoms of the Flu

The signs and symptoms of the flu are pretty well known, and are easy to brush off or overlook. Often the flu is mistaken for the common cold, but the flu will show its effects much more rapidly and to a greater degree than a cold. Many people can fight off the flu at home, but if you have any of the high-risk factors, then you should see a doctor preemptively — before complications could set in. The common signs and symptoms of the flu include:

  • Fever over 100 degrees
  • Muscle aches
  • Chills and sweating
  • Headache
  • Dry, persistent cough
  • Fatigue
  • A sore throat
  • Nasal congestion

While the flu alone can and will kill some people, the complications associated with it are often what results in death. These complications include:

  • Pneumonia
  • Heart problems
  • Bronchitis
  • Asthma flare-ups

While the flu isn’t usually serious for people that are young and healthy, the effects of it have the potential to be life-threatening or leave you with life-long medical disorders.

Get Your Flu Shot Today!

Hopefully, by now you’re convinced that getting your flu shot is the right thing for you. If not, though, then take the extra time to consider those around you. If you come into contact with people who are at a higher risk of death and complications, then it could be very serious for them. When you’re ready to make your appointment, please consider Hill Family Medicine for all your flu shot and primary care needs.