Fears over flu shot are in your head, doctor explains

The majority of Americans do not get a flu shot.

There are only 10 states in which have 50-55 percent immunization, according to CDC figures. 

In most states – 38 of them – about a third of the population gets the shot. 

Some cite the pain or a fear of needles. Others remember the disastrous winter of 2014, when CDC officials misjudged which strain would take hold that year, meaning the vaccine did not provide adequate protection. Others are simply not fussed – ‘it’s just the flu’.

But one of the most often-voiced fears is of catching the flu from the flu shot.  

While it is understandable that people make that erroneous connection, Dr Pritish Tosh, MD, of the Mayo Clinic explains why the fear is unfounded. 

CDC figures show the majority of Americans do not get the flu shot, many due to fears that it could give them the virus. Dr Pritish Tosh of the Mayo Clinic explains why that’s not possible

‘There isn’t any live virus in the influenza vaccine so it’s impossible to get the flu from the vaccine,’ says Dr Tosh, who specializes in emerging infections and pandemics. 

‘There was a live vaccine that’s not available any more, but it was impossible to get the flu from that too.

‘Those who get the vaccine compared to those who get a placebo are more likely to get a soar arm but that’s about it. And in fact, that’s what we want to see, it shows the vaccine is working. 

‘There shouldn’t be a debilitating reaction, and the arm should go away within a couple of days.’

So why do so many seem to fall ill around the time of their shot?

According to Dr Tosh, there are two main reasons: other viruses and the power of our own fears.

Flu season typically begins in early December and lingers until March. Prior to that, those who feel under the weather have likely caught a common cold, especially if it’s a particularly temperamental fall, with temperatures fluctuating.

‘We give the shot before flu season begins – in late fall, early winter, when there are other kinds of viruses around but not influenza,’ he said. 

‘You are as likely to get a cold when you get the flu shot as you would be if you hadn’t got the shot. 

‘And of course, it’s certainly possible for people to get the flu at the same time as they get the shot if they get it later in the year.’

Perhaps more pressing, though, is our tendency to search for a reason for our ill health.  

Dr Tosh explains: ‘The thing is, people remember that flu shot. If they come down with a cold two days later, they connect the two in their mind. 

‘You can’t underestimate the psychological factor here. It’s hard to psychologically separate those things. We’re wired to make those connections. 

‘But study after study shows there isn’t any risk.’

He added: ‘Thankfully this is a vaccine that we give frequently and we know a lot about it and we have done many studies over decades to understand it.’ 

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