Note: I’m not a doctor or a scientist. I used the Center for Disease Control (CDC) website as my main source for flu shot information. As you may have guessed, this site is pro-science and pro-vaccine, and I will not apologize for that in any way. You are free to disagree, and stop reading.
Yesterday, I went into my local Rite Aid and performed an annual ritual: getting my flu shot.
There’s a ton of misinformation circulating about flu shots, especially among the anti-vaccination and alternative health communities. How many times are you on Facebook and see some nonsense about how the flu vaccine actually gives you the flu, or poisons you with some additive, or just plain doesn’t work. And don’t get me started on the silly conspiracy theories. Sure, I was an X-Files fan too, but that was a TV show; vaccinations aren’t a way for the government and alien life forms to track you.
If you’ve ever had the flu, true influenza, then you know just how horrid and debilitating it is. This isn’t a cold, folks. Influenza (not stomach flu, which isn’t a flu at all) is a severe upper respiratory viral infection that includes high fevers, difficulty breathing, severe coughs, and can lay you out for a week solid. The last time I got the flu, I was 25 and on winter break from grad school. Normally hale and hearty, I couldn’t function at all for five days and was weak for two weeks. It was no joke. I’ve gotten a shot every year since, and I’ve never gotten the flu again.
Some of the questions people have about flu shots are easily answered. For instance: why do you need a shot every year, when other vaccinations are only given once or twice in a lifetime? Answer: there are a number of flu viruses circulating every year, and they often mutate, so a single one-time shot will not cover all the possible combinations of viruses present in various flu seasons. Vaccine developers have to try and anticipate the next round of viruses from year to year and adjust the shot accordingly. So, this year’s vaccine protects against three different viruses: a California (H1N1 2009) virus, a Hong Kong (H3N2 2014) virus, and a Brisbane (B/Victoria lineage 2008) virus (info from the CDC website). Next year’s shot might have a totally different combination.
Another concern people have is that somehow, they get the flu from the shot. Nope. The theory behind vaccinations is that a small exposure to a virus allows your body’s immune system to react and develop immunity should you be exposed to the virus in all its horrible glory. Mostly, all I ever get from a flu shot is a sore arm, although some people get the sniffles or even some aches and pains as their immune systems respond to the invader. This is all normal. It is not the flu.
Others argue that the shots don’t work; that they got the flu anyway. Since any vaccine takes some time to work, (in the flu shot’s case, two weeks) for the body’s immunity to develop, it’s possible to still catch influenza during that short unprotected time. Alternatively, you could have been exposed to the flu right before getting the shot, in which case protection arrives too late. And then, occasionally, the vaccine makers miss the mark on identifying which viruses will circulate that season, and the vaccine is only partially effective. I still say some protection is better than none.
There’s also the “I have such a strong immune system, I can fight the flu off” argument. This is nonsense. A strong immune system might keep you from, say, dying from the flu (although the Spanish Flu Pandemic in 1918, involving the H1N1 subtype virus, killed off primarily healthy young adults by totally overwhelming normally healthy immune systems, and killed 50 to 100 million people worldwide), but you’ll still get it if you’re exposed to it. Plus, if you get it, you’ll pass it along to others, including those who cannot get the shot for medical reasons.
Speaking of passing the flu on, there is just about no better, riper place for viral transmission than a fitness environment. Think about it: you’re touching equipment, dripping bodily fluids all over the place, and then touching your face constantly as you wipe the sweat from your brow. Gross. Even in the cleanest of places, where you’re wiping down stuff constantly with bleach wipes and washing your hands, the odds of exposure are high.
If the choice is between being a germophobe and never entering a gym again, or simply getting an annual shot and practicing decent hygiene, I’m going for the latter. Getting an annual shot is just part of what I consider my fitness routine, and I’ve extended that to my daughter and husband as well. By the end of October, we are all vaccinated. Besides, who can afford to be laid up and knocked out for up to two weeks?
So, if you’re a fitness junkie, or just a human, go get your flu shot. You’ll be protecting your health, the health of your career (up to two weeks of sick time), the health of your family, and the health of everyone who can’t get vaccinated.