Above: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) performs genome sequencing to compare the genetic sequences of vaccine viruses with those of circulating viruses. This is one way to assess how closely related the circulating influenza viruses are to the viruses the influenza vaccine is formulated to protect against.

Are you worried about contracting the flu this year? If not, maybe you should be.

In late 2017, the world’s experts looked toward the southern hemisphere’s winter to see what might be in store for the U.S. this year. According to a “Perspective” in the New England Journal of Medicine published Nov. 29, 2017, it doesn’t look good. That may be because vaccine mismatches can — and do — occur.

Influenza futures cannot be 100 percent predictable. But amid the confusion for the consumers, the NEJM article states: “However imperfect, though, current influenza vaccines remain a valuable public health tool, and it is always better to get vaccinated than not to get vaccinated.”

The latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) numbers serve as bleak reminders that influenza kills. In recent years, between 71 percent and 85 percent of seasonal flu-related deaths have occurred in people older than 65, according CDC’s public health experts.

And U.S. hospitalization data show more than half the seasonal flu-related admissions occur among people who are older than 65. If you happen to be in that age range, then you’re also at greater risk of serious complications from the flu.

Unless you’re looking for a serious time-out this winter, the flu vaccine offers the best protection available for most older adults, according to the CDC. In fact, this year’s flu shot could save your life — and although it’s January, it’s still not too late.

Prevention is one reason to learn the difference between influenza myths and flu facts, say public health professionals.


Myth #1: The Flu Shot Makes You Sick

“The most common myth that we all hear almost all the time is people feel they got sick from the vaccine,” said Dalia Eid, registered pharmacist and pharmacy manager at a Kennesaw Walgreens. “They’re sure it was the flu vaccine that made them ill.”

She explained that it can’t actually happen like that.

“Remember that the injection takes about two weeks to become effective,” Eid reminded. “The flu shot does not contain live viruses, so ‘getting the flu’ from the injection is virtually impossible.”

It’s likely people who got sick after getting a flu shot received the injection after they’d already been exposed to the virus, she said.

Common side effects of the flu shot are apt to be soreness, redness, tenderness or perhaps swelling in the area where the injection was received. Only in some cases will low-grade fever or possible muscle aches occur, according to public health experts.

Myth #2: Flu Shots Don’t Work

Another myth is that flu shots are ineffective. That’s not true. The influenza vaccine greatly reduces your chance of getting the flu. It can also mean a milder case of the flu, if you should happen to get ill, according to the world’s experts at the National Institutes of Health (specifically, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases).

The CDC estimates that influenza vaccination averted 40,000 deaths in the United States between the 2005–2006 and 2013–2014 seasons. Yet, we can do better, suggest several physicians, including Anthony Fauci, in the Nov. 29, 2017 NEJM  Perspective.

Myth #3: It’s Too Late for a Flu Shot

Each year from October to mid-May, Georgia’s Department of Public Health tracks flu activity throughout the state and reports the findings in the Georgia Weekly Influenza Report, available on their website, dph.georgia.gov.

Getting the injection is important even if it’s winter, physicians, pharmacists and nurses say. That’s because there can be a late onset of the virus. The CDC suggests that in past years the flu virus constantly changes, and it’s difficult to define when a flu season ends from one year to the next.

Eid agrees and says people will say, “There’s no point in getting a flu shot later in the flu season.” But, that too, is a myth.

“It’s never too late,” said Eid. “There can be a delay in the onset of the virus in different parts of the country. Some parts may have elevated flu activity, while other parts may be moderate. But, it doesn’t mean that our area won’t get to that higher level.”

A Higher Dose for Seniors

The higher dose vaccine for people over 65 was developed to help trigger the body’s immune response to produce more influenza antibodies, as compared to the standard vaccine.

Antibodies are what are needed for the body to respond and protect against infections.

There are several types and brands, including the well-known Fluzone high dose and FLUAD vaccines. These so-called “senior booster” shots are an immunity booster and a bit more potent than the normal flu vaccine. These are recommended for seniors who are 65 and older.

“The main difference between them is FLUAD looks like a little milky white substance compared to Fluzone,” said Eid.

She added that healthcare professionals need to know if a senior has a latex allergy, “because it does contain a minute amount of latex.” According to the FLUAD manufacturer, the tip cap of the prefilled syringe contains latex, which may cause an allergic reaction in persons who are sensitive to it.

The “Do Good” Side of Prevention

Helping others while you help yourself is a popular theme for encouraging patients to get their flu vaccines.

Little Clinics, located inside select Kroger grocery stores, offer flu shots that provide food for people in need. Through Kroger’s One Shot One Meal program, money is donated to Feeding America food banks for every flu shot. Last year, Kroger donated 330 million meals through the program.

“Kroger is committed to helping people live healthier lives and we’re excited to continue this initiative for the second year,” says Colleen Lindholz, Kroger’s president of pharmacy and The Little Clinic, in a press release.

Walgreens and the United Nations Foundation launched the third year of “Get a Shot. Give a Shot.” Walgreens customers have helped to provide more than 20 million polio and measles vaccines to people in developing countries through the successful program.

“We’re really proud of the campaign,” said Eid.

Judi Kanne

Judi Kanne is a public health communications consultant and contributing writer to Atlanta Senior Life.