Do Flu Vaccines Cause the Flu?

The answer is no. But let’s elaborate.

The flu vaccine is designed to provide varying levels of immunity against the flu when someone is exposed. Basically, if you come in contact with someone who has the flu and you have been vaccinated, then you may not develop the flu yourself, or if you do become infected, having had the vaccine will likely lessen the length and severity of your illness. Influenza is most commonly spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes and others are exposed to the droplets of saliva or mucus carrying the virus. It is estimated that anywhere from 5-20% of the total population is infected with influenza each year, and over 200,000 people are hospitalized due to this illness. Complications from the flu such as pneumonia, dehydration, sinus infections and ear infections may also occur in a portion of those infected. Having influenza may also worsen chronic conditions such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease, pulmonary disease and HIV/AIDS.

Although health officials recommended that as many people as possible should get the flu vaccine each year, people in certain high risk populations (that is, those who are at higher risk for getting the illness) are especially encouraged to get their shots. Also, there are certain sub-population groups that should get the flu vaccine every year. These includes children aged 6 months to 5 years, anyone 50 years of age or older, pregnant women, caregivers to people with illnesses, childcare workers, and anyone with a chronic illness including HIV, asthma, diabetes, heart disease, pulmonary disease and many others.

This is especially important for people with HIV/AIDS. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, research has shown an increased risk for heart and lung-related hospitalizations in people infected with HIV during influenza season as opposed to other times of the year. Even worse, HIV infected people are at a higher risk for influenza-related death than people who are HIV negative. Other studies have indicated that influenza symptoms can be prolonged and the risk of influenza-related complications can be higher for some HIV-infected people.

There are two different types of flu vaccine, or rather, the vaccine is provided in two different forms. The most common form is referred to as the “flu shot” because that’s the form it comes in. But don’t worry, it’s just a small ouch! The shot is an inactivated vaccine, meaning the virus itself has been rendered inactive but it triggers an active immune response. This is largely the reason for the myth that the vaccine can make you sick. But again, the flu shot does not cause the illness. However, as with many vaccines, it may trigger some general malaise or soreness – which is probably why people think it can make you sick. Because this vaccine is not a “live” vaccine, the flu shot is strongly recommended for anyone infected with HIV.

The second form of immunization against influenza is a nasal spray called “flu mist.” This is a live attenuated vaccine which means a live virus that has been attenuated, or weakened, so it can no longer cause disease. This allows one to avoid the dreaded shot. Unfortunately, this is still a live virus, no matter how weak, so it’s important that people with HIV do not receive this form of vaccine or any other “live” vaccine.

Even after all of this, you might still wonder why you should even bother with this vaccine. You may have had the flu in the past and well, you got through it. Even if you feel confident that you could endure another bout of this illness, remember that having an infectious disease can cause disease in others. Influenza is highly pathogenic, which means it can be spread to many people through casual contact. If you are not concerned that you won’t get through it if you become infected, there is the possibility that you may expose someone else who is immune compromised because they are very young, very old or have a chronic illness, including one that affects their immune systems. And they may end of hospitalized with more severe complications of influenza, or worse. If you have regular contact with anyone that is in a high risk category for influenza, then please think twice about protecting them from flu by protecting yourself.

If you are interested in getting vaccinated for influenza, contact your medical provider. The Salt Lake Valley Health also offers both the flu shot and flu mist for $22. To get more information you can call the SLVHD immunization line at 468-2086.

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