Disinformation About the Flu Shot is a Problem, Too. Let's Fix That

LX explains what you need to know about the flu shot, including side effects, timing with the COVID booster and whether the shots contain live virus.

After a majority of Americans rolled up their sleeves to get the coronavirus vaccine over the past year, public health experts are calling on children and adults alike to take another step to save lives by getting their annual flu shots.

It’s a campaign to fight not only an ever-evolving influenza virus but also disinformation about flu vaccines, which still runs rampant across America each fall. Here are eight facts to know — and share — about the flu shot as we head into the 2021-2022 flu season.

Fact: Flu shots save thousands of American lives every year

While it's not as deadly as COVID-19, influenza is blamed for an average of 33,000 deaths and 419,000 hospitalizations per year in America, according to the CDC.  But flu shots, taken by both vulnerable and healthy Americans, prevented more than 100,000 additional hospitalizations and 6,300 additional deaths in 2019. 

The number of flu-related deaths dropped significantly during the 2020-2021 season, when many Americans were practicing social distancing. But with much of the country getting back to their normal routines in 2021, public health experts are concerned this flu season could be particularly deadly due to waning immunity following last year’s mild season.

Fact: You can't get the flu from the flu shot

Because the flu shot does not contain a live virus, you cannot get the flu from the flu shot, Dr. Edith Bracho-Sanchez, a pediatrician at Columbia University, told NBCLX in March 2020. If you get sick after getting a flu shot, she said it’s likely due to your immune system developing antibodies or a virus you would've caught anyway.

The CDC states flu vaccines given with a needle are made with "either inactivated (killed) viruses, or with only a single protein from the flu virus." And although the nasal spray vaccine does contain live viruses, they're weakened to avoid causing illness. The annual flu vaccine has a long track record of success, so the CDC recommends them for everyone over 6 months old, with rare exceptions. It takes about two weeks for the body to develop antibodies to protect against the virus after receiving the shot.

Fact: Side effects from the flu shot are typically minor and indicate the vaccine is working

The flu shot can make you tired, which "happens with a number of vaccines, and it is not a bad thing," Bracho-Sanchez said. "What it means is that your immune system has seen the vaccine, and it's activating itself, saying, 'Let me go ahead and make the antibodies (that) make the protection.'”

Mild headaches and soreness, fever, nausea, muscle aches, redness and swelling are also common side effects. Serious allergic reactions are rare and typically occur within a few minutes to a few hours after injection. Here’s what to do if you have an allergic reaction to the flu shot.

Fact: Your body does not fight off viruses better on its own than it does with the flu vaccine

Bracho-Sanchez said it's "silly" to believe the human body can fight off influenza and build immunity better without a vaccine than with one.

"When you vaccinate ... you're giving your strong immune system an advantage before you see the real deal," she explained.

"Trust me, your immune system is fighting every single day and exercising and flexing those muscles to keep you from getting sick. All you're doing when you're vaccinating is you're giving your immune system an advantage."

Fact: You can still get the flu after a flu shot, but the vaccine will make you less sick

No vaccine is 100% effective, and a fast-evolving virus like influenza means how effective the shot is varies from year to year. Recent studies show the flu shot reduces the overall population's risk of flu illness by 40% to 60% if the vaccine is well-matched to the season's circulating flu virus.

Vaccination also helps reduce symptoms and length of illness for those who get vaccinated; the risk of hospitalization falls by up to 82% in adults and 74% in children, according to the CDC.

Fact: The best time to get the flu shot is October

Because flu shot efficacy can wane after six months, the CDC recommends getting vaccinated in October to provide maximum coverage through the worst part of flu season.

Fact: You can get your flu shot at the same time as your COVID-19 booster

How long after a flu shot can you get the COVID-19 booster? You can safely receive them simultaneously, according to Dr. Lori Rolando, an occupational medicine physician at Vanderbilt University. She added that if you don't get them the same day, the amount of time between shots doesn't matter, so it's safe to space them out as much or as little as you want.

If you haven't received either yet and you qualify for a COVID-19 booster shot — the CDC recently expanded eligibility — Rolando recommended getting your flu shot and vaccine booster at the same time. If you don't yet qualify for a booster, don't wait to get your flu shot, though. Try to get your flu shot before the end of October and your booster when it becomes available.

Fact: Flu shots are available for free in America

The Affordable Care Act of 2011 mandated all insurance companies provide recommended vaccines, including the flu shot, for free without any copay or coinsurance. Typically, they can be obtained at doctor’s offices, clinics and drugstores. Check with your health care provider to find out if you must go to a specific facility to receive your vaccine.

Fact: Hospitals are already stretched thin

Because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, hospitals across America, which typically prepare for an influx of flu patients each winter, are already stretched thin.

That’s why Bracho-Sanchez says it’s more important than ever for healthy Americans to get flu shots and prevent the spread of another virus.

“When it comes to vaccination in this country, people have unfortunately taken a somewhat selfish approach. 'I don't need to vaccinate. My child will be fine. I will be fine,'" she said. "This is the time to think about everyone around us and (decrease) the burden."

It’s never too late to get the flu shot to protect yourself and those around you, she said, and it’s never too late to share good information with friends and family who may not realize how beneficial the vaccine can be.