The Truth About the Flu Vaccine

More than half of parents believe at least one common flu myth. Are you one of them? We asked experts to give us the lowdown on how it works and who should get immunized.

Despite studies proving that flu vaccinations are a lifesaver, less than half of all children in the United States (and even fewer parents) are immunized each year. Fear and misinformation cause many families to take their chances with this potentially fatal respiratory virus.

One national survey of 700 parents by Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital in 2018 showed that more than half of the respondents believed that the flu shot can cause the flu. One-third said that the flu shot didn’t work. "The tragedy is that children continue to die from an illness that is largely preventable," says Dr. Blumberg.

Because awareness and education are key to making smart decisions about your family's health, we went to the experts to get clear-cut information about the flu and the vaccine.

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The fear: My baby already gets too many shots.

Reality check: Doctors hear this from many parents, but they want moms and dads to understand that children ages 6 months to 5 years are at a high risk of serious flu-related complications like pneumonia, dehydration, and hospitalization. In fact, an average of 20,000 kids ages 5 and younger are hospitalized with the flu every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and more than a third of the children who died during the 2012-13 flu season were under age 4.

"Their immature immune system is still developing the ability to make antibodies to fight off sickness," explains Mary Glode, M.D., head of pediatric infectious diseases at Children's Hospital Colorado, in Aurora. That's why kids 8 and under who are vaccinated for the first time need two separate doses at least 28 days apart. The first one primes their immune system, while the second starts providing protection.

The fear: The vaccine can cause the flu.

Reality check: It's impossible for the killed or inactivated viruses in the flu shot to cause illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nasal-spray vaccine does contain live flu strains, but they're too weak to make you sick. Some people who get the nasal spray do experience reactions such as a runny nose, a sore throat, or fatigue.

"These side effects--which are mild and short-lived compared with the actual flu--indicate that your body is building up antibodies to fight flu," explains Pedro Piedra, M.D., pediatric infectious-disease specialist at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston. If you or your child truly gets sick with the flu soon after being vaccinated, it means the virus had entered your system prior to or shortly after you got the vaccine.

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The fear: My child has an egg allergy and the vaccine will cause a reaction.

Reality check: Both the shot and the nasal-spray flu vaccine contain trace amounts of egg allergen because the vaccine is grown in chicken eggs, which is why kids with egg allergies have traditionally been told to avoid them. However, a December 2012 study in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology found that the amount of egg protein is too low to cause a reaction even in those who have a severe egg allergy.

Still, your doctor may want to monitor your egg-allergic child for reactions for 30 minutes when she gets the vaccine for the first time. (A new egg-free flu shot, Flublok, should be available this season for adults; a version for children is expected to be on the market in the next few years.)

The fear: It won't help. My vaccinated child still got sick last year.

Reality check: No vaccine offers complete immunity. This is especially true for influenza because virus strains are constantly changing. "Experts have to guess months in advance which strains to target," says Dr. Glode. They've gotten it right 18 of the last 22 flu seasons. Even when it isn't a perfect match, the antibodies produced in response to the vaccine can protect against related flu viruses.

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The fear: The vaccine causes autism.

Reality check: No study has ever shown a connection between autism and vaccines containing thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative that keeps bacteria and fungi from growing in multi-dose vials of the flu vaccine. In fact, the 1998 study that first raised the fear about the MMR vaccine was retracted in 2010 after it was proven that the research findings were fabricated and erroneous; the lead author of the study, Andrew Wakefield, M.D., was stripped of his license to practice medicine in his native United Kingdom.

Subsequent studies conducted on thousands of children indicate that both vaccinated and unvaccinated children are equally at risk for autism. But if you're still concerned, the nasal spray FluMist doesn't contain thimerosal and single-dose preservative-free versions of the flu shot are now more widely available.

The fear: We didn't get our kids vaccinated right away, and now it's too late.

Reality check: Even though most doctors start offering the vaccine in the late summer and fall, shipments continue to arrive during the peak of flu season in January and February, and flu can continue to spread as late as May (as it did last season, when ten children died). Getting vaccinated early is still a good idea, though, because it takes about two weeks for the body to develop antibodies to fight flu. And of course it's key to practice--and instill--good hygiene habits.

The fear: I'm pregnant, and getting vaccinated could harm my baby.

Reality check: Catching the flu while pregnant increases your risk of miscarriage and premature birth. Being sick is also dangerous for you. "Your lungs and heart already work harder when you're pregnant," says Dr. Glode. "Influenza strains them even more and can lead to pneumonia and hospitalization." Besides, when you get vaccinated, you pass flu-fighting antibodies on to your baby-to-be that can protect him for up to four months after birth.

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