Question And Answer: What You Need To Know About The Flu Shot

It’s that time of year again. During the next few weeks, drugstores across the country will be putting their spookiest witches, pumpkins, skeletons, and vampires on display. But, like usual, the festive decorations will be sharing window space with signs advertising something less scary (but maybe as mysterious): the flu shot.

But honestly, let’s discuss the flu shot. What is it? Can you actually get sick from getting it (like a lot of people claim)? Who should get it? And, moreover, who actually does get it? What’s a reasonable price? There are so many questions surrounding this pervasive preventative action–so let’s tackle a few of them, with the help of the Center for Disease Control.

What is the flu shot?

The flu shot (which the CDC refers to as the Seasonal Influenza Vaccine), like all vaccines, contained a killed version of the virus that you’re been protected against–the idea being that, when your body can take on a dead one, it’ll be more prepared to take on a live one.

There’s also a nasal spray version of the vaccine–but beware. It contains a weakened, but not killed, version of the virus, and is more likely to make you feel sick.

So, wait–you actually can get sick from the flu shot?

Unfortunately, when your body is fighting the dead virus, you may react as though you’ve actually got the flu, but you won’t actually get it. Symptoms includes aches and a low fever. If you opt for the nasal spray version (because you’re afraid of needles, or because your veins are slippery, or for whatever other reason), the side effects can include nausea, aches, a sore throat, a fever, and pretty much every other symptom of the flu, but not quite as bad.

The nasal spray version, however, which is only approved for younger-ish people who are mostly healthy (ages 2-49 who are not pregnant), comes with worse side-effects, including nausea, fever, aches, a sore throat, a runny nose, and a cough. So it’s a lot more like actually getting sick.

That sounds lovely. What does the flu shot protect against?

Both versions of the vaccination protect against three versions of the flu, including H1N1, which is a pretty important one to be protected against, especially if you work with or are among one of the vulnerable groups.

Who are the vulnerable groups? Who should get the shot?

Flu viruses, like H1N1 and others, can be particularly harmful (if not deadly) to children under 5 (but especially under 2), pregnant women, the elderly, and those with chronic conditions that may be worsened by the flu. Which is why it’s recommended that if you work with any of those groups, or are a health care provider of any kind, that you get the shot.

Ok, I don’t work with any of those groups, and am not among them. Do I still need a shot?

That’s between you and your sick days. If you’re someone who has very limited ability to take time away from work (because you don’t receive paid sick leave, or are someone who has a job that’s hard to get covered), it may be a good idea to get one. If you do, try to schedule it for, say, a Friday (or your version of a Friday), so that, even if you do have symptoms, you’ll already be off work during the worst of them.

But if you’re someone who rarely gets sick, or you don’t work around very many people, or you’re just a meticulous hand-washer, you may not need to do it–and the vaccine may make you feel worse than you would otherwise.

Of course, if you are in a position where you could get someone else sick because you didn’t get a shot, this makes you kind of a jerk. So get one if you’re in that position.

Ok, I might get one. How much does a flu shot usually cost, and where should I go?

Depends. There are subsidy programs for people who are low-income, which provide inexpensive or even free flu shots across the county. And, as we mentioned earlier. Walgreen’s donates shots to people who can’t afford them. Call your closest pharmacy to see what they recommend in your state.

But if you can afford one, you can get it done at a drugstore or pharmacy–often without an appointment–or at your doctor’s office, and the shot usually costs between $25 and $40. Stores and pharmacies often take health insurance, too, so if you’re covered, you may not even have to pay that.

Are flu shots just a way for pharmacies to make more money? My conspiracy-theory-loving-friend told me this.

Your friend isn’t entirely wrong. Pharmacies do get a boost in sales during flu season from the shot. But they’re also providing a public service to the millions of uninsured Americans who can’t go to a doctor.

But really, who actually gets the flu shot?

Last year, we took a poll here on Blisstree, asking who among our readers are planning to get the shot. And while this is hardly a scientific (or unbiased) study, it does show that, among people who read this site (you’re one of them, right?), well over half said they actually do get the shot. If that’s not science-y enough for you, the CDC reported that last year, over 130 million Americans got it. And, they said, that’s not even as many as they’d like to see, to truly cut down on the spread of the flu.

Whether or not you get the shot is your call. But if you are going to be working around people whose immune systems might not be able to fend off the influenza virus, consider doing the nice thing and getting it done for them.

Image: Leah-Anne Thompson / Shutterstock

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    • db7

      There has never been a random,blind study to test the effectiveness of the flu shot. There is no scientific data to prove it is helpful. Waste of time and money.

      • jb5

        Where do you find your sources for your random, “blind” (I hope you meant double-blinded) trials, db7? Google?

        The effectiveness of the shot each year is hit or miss. There is no way to guarantee that the flu shot they develop will be for the exact strain that evolves. Generally, we make the flu shot with regards to whatever flu virus is popping up in China, since that is what tends to travel to us. Most of the times it’s correct, sometimes it’s not. The thing is that these viruses are always changing, so it is impossible to be 100% correct all the time.

        Also, to Olivia, the flu is a natural thing? Yes, it is a virus, not manmade, but so is HIV, so is cancer, so is most diseases. Do you also make a stand against all pharmaceuticals since they are not natural and the human body should fend for itself? Yes, our nation is much weaker immunologically speaking than it could be, but without these vaccines, the population would probably be much smaller (although some people like that idea, so whatever floats your boat).

    • Courtney

      I got the flu shot last year and it gave me vertigo. I was in bed for a week. Never again……

    • Olivia

      I would never get the flu shot, even being a nanny/around kids 24/7.
      I will not give it to my future children.
      The flu is a natural thing… It’s not a deadly disease (for a huge majority of people.)
      I’m afraid that if we continue to vaccinate ourselves and our children for every ache and pain, stronger viruses and strains will evolve. Don’t mess with mother nature.

      • sast85

        Wow Olivia, do these kids parents know that you don’t get vaccinated against the flu? Flu sickened and killed a few folks in my hospital last year, including a pregnant female who had to deliver early.

        Spanish flu was “natural,” and it killed 50-100 million people all over the world in the early 1900. In fact it killed 3% of the current population of the world. Influenza is not benign, make an informed decision!

    • Griffin82

      Had the flu in late March and my doctor said the strain I had was not covered by the flu shot. Still not sure if I will get one this year…

    • Valerie

      Last year when I was in my teacher credential program, I was one of the few people in my cohort who did get the flu shot, and one of the few who did NOT get whatever debilitating, miserable flu everyone got that winter. I know that doesn’t count as a scientific study, but it’s proof enough for me to get vaccinated every year. I’m still looking for a full time job with health benefits and sick days (substitute teaching offers neither) so I can’t really afford to get sick. I’m not taking any chances.