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December 07, 2018

The Truth About Flu Shots

Why They Work, and Why They Matter

Joyce Knestrick, PhD, CRNP, FAANP

Most people don’t think of getting a flu shot as part of their civic duty. If history repeats, less than half the people eligible for a flu shot this year will get one, largely because they just don’t see the point. We all know someone who went out of their way to get vaccinated and still got the flu, and the lack of certainty that the flu shot will work, coupled with the inconvenience of it all, leads even the most well-intentioned people to go unprotected.

In the immediate sense, these people are putting themselves at risk. Getting the flu shot decreases your chance of getting the flu by about half. Still, most healthy people don’t realize that getting a flu shot is as much for other people as it is for themselves. From tiny babies to immunosuppressed cancer patients to those with severe vaccination allergies, our communities rely on healthy people to protect those who can’t protect themselves. We call this herd immunity, and it’s the key to ensuring the flu doesn’t spread like wildfire during aggressive outbreaks.

This is true for most vaccinations, but most viruses don’t relentlessly knock on our door every single year. Like clockwork, flu season kicks off in October and lasts more than half the year, sometimes until early May. Last year we had our worst flu season in almost half a century, and when it was all said and done, 80,000 died — more people than from car crashes and drug overdoses.

Many people fault the flu shot for not being more effective, and plenty are vowing this year to skip it because it didn’t work, but their definition of “working” isn’t totally accurate. Even during “ineffective” immunization years, flu vaccinations prevent 21 million infections, 130,000 hospitalizations and 61,000 deaths. While the flu shot may keep you from getting sick, it’s more important job is to keep you and the people around you from dying. If no one got a flu shot this year, nearly half a million people would be hospitalized, and more than 130,000 people would die from the flu.

Now is our chance to do better. Herd immunity is a group effort, and flu season is just getting underway, which means there is still time to protect yourself — and others. Here are the four biggest reasons to get a flu shot ASAP.

  1.  Getting the flu can be awful. Every year, between five and 20 percent of the population gets the flu, and symptoms range from a runny nose to life-threatening complications. The flu can last from one to two weeks, and causes 100 million missed work days and 32 million missed school days annually.
  2. You may be less miserable if you do get the flu. Unvaccinated people are 60 percent more likely to be admitted to the ICU and spend an average of four days more in the hospital. Even if you get the flu, the likelihood of you dying from the flu decreases by as much as five times if you’ve been vaccinated.
  3. You can prevent someone else from getting sick. In every class, office or restaurant, there’s at least one person with asthma, diabetes, heart disease, cystic fibrosis, cancer or another condition that makes them more vulnerable to the flu. Protecting yourself also helps to protect them.  
  4. You help protect your family. Last year, flu-related deaths among children skyrocketed, and 80 percent of the victims were not vaccinated. A flu shot will decrease your child’s risk of dying from the flu by half, and living with people who have been vaccinated will protect against a family outbreak.

Despite getting a bad rap for not being more effective, the flu shot does its job. Now it’s time for all of us to do ours. If you haven’t gotten your flu shot yet, use this finder to make it easy. In just five minutes, you can help save lives this flu season.