How Does The Flu Shot Work?

There's not much to dislike about fall, but if I had to pick one thing it, would be getting the flu shot. But have you ever stopped to wonder: how does the flu shot work, even? For many of us, getting the flu shot is a routine task that we just get over with once a year, kind of like brushing your teeth except more annoying and not as frequent. We don't often put much thought into exactly what goes on in our bodies when we get our jabs — but it's worth brushing up on the basics before your next visit to the doctor or pharmacy.

Flu season may not be hitting us for several more weeks, so chances are you haven't thought about where and when to get the vaccination yet. I didn't either, until I recently saw that advertisements were already making their debut in local pharmacies and drugstores, reminding people to get their flu shot "today!"

Getting the seasonal flu shot itself doesn't take more than a few seconds, but it isn't exactly a moonlight stroll either. First, though — and you probably already know this, but it's worth asking just so we're all on the same page — what exactly is the flu? Short for influenza, it's a contagious virus that leads to coughing, a sore throat, runny nose, muscle aches, fatigue, and sometimes a fever. If you've got the flu, you can easily pass it on just by shaking hands with another person. Yikes.

Now, when it comes to your annual flu shot, you're guarded against that year's most common strains of flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There are a couple of different ways to get the flu vaccine, including the common flu shot and the nasal spray (although, just FYI, the CDC has recommended that people not get the latter this year, because it's just not as effective). The side effects of getting the shot are no biggie for most people; they might include soreness, muscle aches, fatigue, and headache, to name a few, but they're far from debilitating. If you've wondered why you're supposed to move your arm around after getting the flu shot, it's to keep the circulation in that area going and mitigate any soreness and pain later on.

In order to do its job, the flu shot may contain traces of non-infectious flu viruses. Contrary to popular myth, though, you can't catch the flu from getting a flu shot — it just doesn't work that way. Instead, the flu shot triggers your body to start producing antibodies to protect you in case you do get the flu. The vaccine cuts that risk by about half, according to the CDC. One thing to keep in mind is that effectiveness takes about two weeks and the vaccine won't start protecting you from the flu until after that time period has passed. And, mind you, you can still get the flu even if you get the shot; the symptoms might just be milder. The flu shot also doesn't protect against other viruses with symptoms that mimic the flu, including the common cold.

It's especially important for pregnant women to get their flu shot, according to the CDC, because getting sick during pregnancy can lead to major illness and other complications, like premature labor. The flu shot can also help prevent babies from getting the flu even after their birth. Other people who are at higher risk for the flu include those with asthma, diabetes, and heart disease.

New strains of the flu crop up almost every year and manifest themselves differently depending on the person. Does that mean if this year's common types of flu are the same as last year's, you don't have to get the vaccine? Nope. You should still get it, because the effects of last year's vaccine is probably long gone. So the next time you're grumbling over getting the flu shot, just know that it'll save you a bunch of sick days in the long run.

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