Another flu season, the same age-old debate: does the flu shot actually work, and if not, what's the point of being vaccinated? While it's true that the flu shot is more effective some years than others, that's no excuse to skip it. To understand why, you first need to know how the vaccine is developed.
Each year, scientists monitor the flu strains circulating in the southern hemisphere, and create a vaccine based on their findings, explained Alan Taege, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Cleveland Clinic. The efficacy of the shot can vary from year to year, depending on the accuracy of that forecast, since predicting the specific strains and severity of the flu can be very difficult. "This year, they took a little longer than usual to better match the circulating strains, in hopes the vaccine will be more effective," Dr. Taege told POPSUGAR. "Nevertheless, it's important to get vaccinated as some protection is better than no protection."
It's easy to underestimate the dangers of the flu, but "it's a serious and contagious respiratory illness — thousands of people are hospitalized and even die due to the flu every year," he said. You may be young and healthy enough that the risk isn't as much a concern for you, but the more people who are vaccinated, the less likely there will be a major outbreak (a concept known as herd immunity). "Getting your flu vaccination not only protects you, it protects others around you by lessening the amount of flu that's spread in the community," Dr. Taege explained — this includes infants who are too young to be vaccinated and people with weakened immune systems.
For this reason, the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults and children 6 months and older get vaccinated before the end of October, with very few exceptions. (Of course, better late than never.)
Can the Flu Shot Make You Sick?
One reason it's recommended that you get the flu vaccine as early as possible is that it can take two weeks or more for your body to develop the antibodies that protect against the flu virus. If you were to come in contact with the flu during that time, you could get sick — one reason some falsely believe that the vaccine actually causes the flu. "You cannot get influenza from the standard vaccine as it is not a live virus," Dr. Taege said.
Still, you may experience mild symptoms related to the vaccine itself, including soreness, redness, or swelling at the injection site, and more rarely, headache, low-grade fever, nausea, or muscle aches. This is simply a result of your body recognizing the vaccine and producing those protective antibodies, but as Dr. Taege explained, these symptoms typically only last a few days and are nothing compared to actually getting the flu.