Flu shot facts

It’s flu season. Which means I’m having a lot of conversations with parents who don’t want their kids to have the flu shot.

Most parents do want it for their children. Which is great, because influenza is more than just a bad cold. Every year about 200,000 people in the US are hospitalized because of it–and every year between 3,000 and 49,000 people die from it.

But every year, there are parents who refuse the influenza vaccine. It’s their choice, of course; I support the right of parents to make what they feel are the best health decisions for their children. What frustrates me, though, is that the most common reasons people give for refusing the flu shot aren’t really good reasons:

1. We never get the flu. If you have never had the flu, you are either living in a bubble, an amazing hand-washer or extremely lucky—and of those three, luck is usually the explanation. Bubble-living is pretty rare, and even the most amazing hand-washers get sneezed on sometimes, or touch doorknobs or other public objects that people with the flu touch. Five to 20 percent of US residents get the flu every year; you can only rely on luck so long.

2. My kids are healthy—they don’t need it. While it’s true that we worry most about the flu in the very young, the very old and those with health problems (such as asthma), even healthy people can catch the flu (see above) and some can get pretty sick. Even if they don’t get very sick, they can give it to others—like people with conditions that prevent them from getting the shot, or infants who are too young to get it. The more people we immunize, the safer everyone is from the flu.

3. The flu shot can make you sick. I hear this one a lot. You can’t catch the flu from the shot—the virus is completely killed. The nasal spray has a (very) weakened version of the virus, so there is a theoretical possibility you could catch the flu from it—but really, it’s only a risk for people who have serious problems with their immune system. It’s true that you can feel sick for a day or two after the flu shot—this is true after any vaccination, really. It’s also important to remember that it can take a couple of weeks before the protection kicks in; if you are exposed to the flu before that kick-in, you may catch it (which is why it’s good to get your shot early in the season).

“Five to 20 percent of US residents get the flu every year; you can only rely on luck to keep you healthy for so long.”

4. I hear that you can get the flu shot and still get the flu. Usually the explanation for this is that two week kick-in problem, but there are other explanations. Every year, scientists make their best guess as to which strains of the flu going to be most common, and make the flu vaccine to cover those. Usually they are right, but occasionally they are wrong (that’s why we had to do the H1N1 vaccination separately one year)—and even if they are right it doesn’t mean you can’t catch a different strain. There are also lots of flu-like illnesses caused by viruses other than influenza, like adenovirus. But none of this is a reason not to get the flu shot—you are still better off with it than without it.

5. The flu shot has dangerous preservatives. The formulation we give to children is preservative-free, and adults can ask to get that one too. There are some formulations that do have small amounts of preservatives, but those preservatives are felt to be safe (they help keep germs out, too, which is a good thing).

6. My child has a cold, so I don’t think they should get the vaccine. If someone is really sick (high fever, vomiting, etc.) getting the flu shot isn’t a good idea. But it’s okay to get it with a minor illness like a cold. If we were to wait until there was no illness at all, we might have to wait until spring!

7. We don’t do the flu shot. I hear this one a lot too, and I’m never quite sure how to respond. Usually I’m hearing it from people who “do” other vaccines. I guess it’s how they sum up some or all of the reasons above—or it’s a gut nervousness they can’t fully explain or shake.

I understand gut nervousness. I understand feeling anxious about giving something to your child when you’ve heard people say it could be dangerous.

But here’s what I ask: make sure you get the facts. Go to www.flu.gov, the influenza website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Learn all about the flu, about preventing and treating it, and about the flu shot. Talk to your doctor about your concerns; make sure all your questions are answered.

This is too important a decision to do anything else.

Do you know where the nearest flu shot is available for you and your family?Do you have questions about the type of vaccine they offer? Use the HealthMap Vaccine Finder, developed by Boston Children’s HealthMap team, for all your influenza vaccination needs.