If you've ever had the flu, you know how bad it can make you feel. To help avoid all that misery — as well as possible health complications — doctors now recommend that all teens up to age 18 get a flu vaccine every year.
Hate getting shots? There's good news: The flu vaccine also comes in a nasal spray.
Why Get Vaccinated?
It's especially important for people with certain medical conditions (like kidney disease, diabetes, HIV, heart problems, or asthma) to get a flu vaccine because getting vaccinated can protect against complications like pneumonia. Kids and teens who take aspirin regularly also need to be vaccinated because they're at risk for developing a serious condition called Reye syndrome if they get the flu.
Another reason for getting vaccinated is to protect the people around you who might get seriously ill from flu, especially because many (like very young babies) can't be vaccinated themselves. It's what scientists call "herd immunity" — by protecting yourself you are also protecting other people who are more vulnerable because there's less chance you'll get the flu and pass it on.
So be sure to get vaccinated if you are around people who are at risk if they get the flu, like babies, people with a serious illness, and the elderly.
When Should a Person Get Vaccinated?
The best time to get a flu shot in the United States is in October or November. This gives the body a chance to build up immunity before the winter flu season. However, you can get a flu shot throughout flu season and still have some protection against the flu. You can also protect yourself against the flu by washing your hands frequently.
What's in a Flu Vaccine?
Flu vaccines are available as a shot or nasal mist (a type of spray that's squirted up the nose). The shot contains killed flu viruses that won't cause people to get the flu, but will cause the body to make antibodies to fight off infection by the live flu virus.
The flu shot is about 80% effective against the flu, which means that a few people who get the shot will still get the flu. In addition, the shot only contains certain strains of the virus. If a new flu strain emerges, a person who's had a shot may not be protected against it.
If you hate getting shots, ask your doctor about the nasal mist vaccine. The nasal mist is different from the shot because it contains weakened live flu viruses instead of killed viruses. Because it contains live viruses, the nasal mist isn't for everyone. For example, people with weakened immune systems shouldn't get the nasal mist and some things — like steroid use — can affect the immune system.
Check with your doctor to see if you can get the nasal mist vaccine — or whether you need a flu vaccine at all.
What About Side Effects?
It's possible to have some minor side effects for 1 or 2 days after getting a flu shot, like soreness in the area where you got the shot. Some people may feel achy or have a mild fever after getting the shot. But the side effects aren't as bad as the flu, which can make some people sick for as long as 2 or 3 weeks.
A few people who get the nasal mist vaccine can develop mild flu-like symptoms that go away after several days.
The ingredients for flu vaccines are grown inside eggs. So if you're allergic to eggs or egg products, let your doctor know before you get either type of flu vaccine.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: September 2008