Child in winter hat on swing It's about that time to start thinking about influenza (the flu) — or perhaps to adjust your thinking. While everyone may be familiar with the influenza virus and how lousy it feels to be in bed with the flu, there are some myths about influenza and the influenza vaccine that persist year after year. Here are the most common misconceptions:

  • MYTH: The influenza vaccine doesn't work. The influenza vaccine isn't perfect, and it is possible, although unlikely, that you can become ill with the flu even if you have received the vaccine. However, if you get the influenza vaccine and still get the flu, your symptoms are likely to be much less severe than if you skipped the vaccine altogether.
  • MYTH: You don't need the flu vaccine every year. The influenza virus changes as it replicates, so each influenza season, the strains of the virus that are circulating may be different enough that immunity from previous vaccinations or infections is no longer protective. In addition, immune protection from the shot fades over time. For these reasons, it is important to get an annual vaccine.
  • MYTH: The flu vaccine causes the flu. The influenza vaccine shot doesn't contain live viruses, so it can't cause the flu. Although the nasal spray version does contain a weakened form of the influenza viruses, they only replicate in the cooler temperatures of the nose and cannot replicate in the lungs where they would lead to an infection.

    Side effects from the shot version may include soreness at the site of injection, low-grade fever, headache or muscle aches. For those who get the nasal spray, side effects may include mild congestion, runny nose, sore throat or cough. These symptoms rarely last longer than a few hours. You can choose the nasal spray instead of the shot if you are a healthy person aged 2 to 49, and, in fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently expressed a preference for healthy children between 2 and 8 years of age to get the nasal spray version when it is available. However, vaccination should not be delayed to wait for the nasal spray version. It is still most important to be immunized in advance of influenza season.

  • MYTH: It's better to get the flu than the influenza vaccine. While some may feel like the flu is nothing more than a stuffy, achy, feverish inconvenience, the flu can be a very serious condition, especially in young children. Pregnant women and people with asthma, heart conditions or diabetes are also at increased risk of suffering complications from the flu. These complications can lead to hospitalization or death even in previously healthy individuals.
  • MYTH: Healthy people don’t need influenza vaccine. It might have been years since you last had the flu, and you may think of yourself as pretty healthy, but every year, previously healthy parents and children die from the flu — thousands to tens of thousands of people in the United States die each year from influenza or its complications. Getting the influenza vaccine is important for keeping the influenza virus out of the house, especially if you have a baby too young to be vaccinated. Children younger than 6 months can't receive the influenza vaccine.

Remember that the flu is more dangerous to your child than the average cold, since it can lead to more serious conditions such as pneumonia or other bacterial infections. Be sure to make an appointment to have yourself and your children vaccinated for the flu. All children 6 months and older are recommended to receive the flu vaccine. 

Visit the Vaccine Education Center website for more information about influenza and the influenza vaccine.

Reviewed by: Paul A. Offit
Date: September 2014