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10 bad reasons for skipping the flu shot this year

We debunk some of the most common excuses

Last updated: January 2013

This year's flu season is shaping up to be one of the worst in a decade, with the disease already widespread in 47 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Click on the map at right for details). Almost as worrisome, the CDC says that only about a third of people got vaccinated early this year. In a past survey of people's attitudes about the flu vaccine, people gave us a variety of explanations for why they skipped the shot. Here are 10 of the most common ones—along with our rebuttals


Reality: The body’s innate immune response against the flu virus is short-lived, usually just a few months. Moreover, the virus that causes the flu often changes from year to year. So any protection your body develops during one flu season is usually gone by the next. (That also explains why, unlike most other vaccines, you need a fresh flu shot each year.)

Reality. Just because you haven’t had the flu in the past doesn’t mean you won’t get it this year. And just one bout of the disease may have you running for the flu shot next year. Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year the flu sends some 225,000 people to the hospital, and causes the death of 35,000. And while the shot is especially important for certain groups of people—including pregnant women, those over age 50, and anyone with weakened immunity or chronic illness—the CDC now recommends the shot for everyone 6 months or older.

Reality: The standard flu shot is made from an inactivated virus, so it’s impossible to get the disease from it. If you do develop the flu after getting the shot, you were just one of the unlucky ones who were not protected by the vaccination. The nasal-spay version of the vaccine (FluMist) is made from a weakened virus, so you can develop at least mild flu symptoms from it. In fact, the government doesn’t recommend the nasal spray for people younger than 2 or older than 49, and we think you should avoid the nasal spay unless you have a good reason for staying away from the injection. 

Reality: Side effects are uncommon and usually mild, including soreness or redness at the injection site, aches, and mild fever. A small number of people do have a more serious allergic reaction to the shot. And research suggests that roughly 1 out of every 1 million people vaccinated might develop Guillain-Barre syndrome, a neurological disorder. But the shot's protection against illness, hospitalization, and death far outweighs the risk. Still, if you've had Guillain-Barre syndrome, avoid the spray vaccine and discuss with your doctor whether to get a shot. Finally, there is no convincing evidence linking the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal with autism or other health problems. And in any case, most flu vaccines now used in this country no longer contain thimerosal. We do, however, have some concerns about the high-dose vaccine, Fluzone, which is approved for people 65 and older. It has not yet been proven to work better in older people than the standard vaccine, but is linked to more side effects than the regular vaccine, including malaise, muscle aches, and soreness at the injection site.

Reality: For the antiviral drugs oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza) to work, you have to start taking them within two days of the onset of symptoms. Even then, the drugs typically shorten the duration by only a day or so. And the flu drugs commonly sold over-the-counter don't prevent the disase, but instead only treat the symptoms. And even that they don't do very well. See our advice on what does work for cold and flu symptoms

Reality: The shot generally prevents the flu in about 60 percent of healthy people in their 60s, though that varies depending on how well the vaccine matches the virus that actually emerges. And it has been shown to reduce hospitalizations from pneumonia or other complications by 27 to 70 percent, and deaths by up to 80 percent. Younger adults and children typically benefit even more from the shots. People of any age who are frail or suffer from a chronic disease typically get somewhat less protection from the shot—though the benefits for them still vastly outweigh the risks.

Reality. Many people find that lying down for their shots helps them relax. And rising up slowly afterward helps prevent fainting, a problem that occurs in a small percentage of people who get the shot. Or, if necessary, talk with your doctor about getting the nasal spray.

Reality: In our survey a few years ago, nearly two-thirds of the people had no out-of-pocket expenses, and 90 percent of those who did had to pay less than $30. And you can now get walk-in shots for $10 or less at many pharmacies.

Reality: You don’t have to. Nearly a quarter of the people in our survey got the shot at work. Seven percent got the shot at a pharmacy. Health fairs run by insurance companies, colleges, or public-health clinics also often offer the vaccine.

Reality: Sounds like it's time for you to look for a new job.

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