What Doctors Wish Patients Knew About Flu Vaccines

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Flu is a significant cause of morbidity and mortality every year. Flu vaccines are safe and effective, but far too many Americans decide to forgo them. The result is preventable illnesses and deaths. We must do better at encouraging flu vaccination.

The flu season, which is about to rev up in the U.S. and the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, is a serious public health challenge; from 2010 to 2020, between 12,000 and 52,000 people died of flu in the United States annually. Many of these deaths could have been prevented by flu vaccines, but a shocking number of Americans fail to get them, even though they know they should.

According to a survey from the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, 65% of adults in the U.S. agree that annual influenza vaccination is the best preventive measure against flu-related deaths and hospitalizations; only 43% had planned to get an influenza vaccine during the 2023–2024 flu season. That percentage will likely be even lower this year, given COVID fatigue and the barrage of anti-vaccine propaganda circulating on social media and certain news channels.

Among those who do not plan to get a flu vaccine, top reasons cited include:  

  • 32% are concerned about potential side effects from the vaccine
  • 31% do not trust vaccines
  • 27% do not think vaccines work very well
  • 27% are concerned about getting sick from vaccines

Here are a few pertinent facts for the doubters.

1. The vaccine won’t give you the flu.

The active ingredient in the flu shot is made of pieces of the virus, and although the nasal spray vaccine contains a whole virus, it’s a weakened form, so neither kind can actually give you the flu. Although you might have a low-grade fever or feel a little fatigued for a couple of days after vaccination, that’s the immune system responding to the vaccine and doing its job.

2. This year’s vaccines seem like a good match for circulating flu

Mid-season data from the Southern Hemisphere (where the fall-winter flu season precedes that in the Northern Hemisphere) suggest the current season's flu vaccines will protect quite well against the most severe outcomes, according to a September 15 report by CDC researchers. They concluded that the 2023 Southern Hemisphere seasonal flu vaccines reduced the risk for flu-associated hospitalizations by 52%, within the usual range of 40-60% for flu vaccines.   

3. Any time during the flu season is a good time for the vaccine

The flu season generally runs from September to February or March. Because the efficacy of the vaccines starts to wane gradually a couple of months after administration, late September or October is generally optimal to get the vaccine, but any time during the flu season affords some protection.

4. Hate shots? There are nasal sprays too

The sprays, typically about as effective as the shots, are approved only for people ages 2 through 49. If you’d prefer that option, discuss it with your doctor.

5. Everyone should get the flu vaccine

The flu can lead to serious health complications for anyone, especially adults 65 years of age and older, children younger than five, pregnant women, and other people with chronic medical conditions or weakened immune systems.

As we age, our immune response is no longer as robust, so there are some “higher potency” vaccine options available for seniors. If you’re a senior, remind the person administering the shot that you’re eligible.

6. You can get the flu and COVID vaccines at the same visit

The newly updated COVID-19 vaccine, designed to better match the SARS-CoV-2 virus subvariants currently circulating, is now available for patients six months or older. Coadministration of flu and updated COVID-19 vaccines (via separate shots) is permitted at the same visit to a healthcare provider.  

7. Vaccines are some of modern medicine’s greatest miracles. Please take advantage of them.

Note: An earlier version of this article was published by Inside Sources.