Fall is finally here, and with it comes cooler weather, turning leaves, and unfortunately, flu season. This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched its annual campaign urging people to get their flu vaccines. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Price, even got his flu shot onstage at the National Press Club. But with every flu season comes the same debate: do you really need to get a flu shot?
First, let's look at what the flu actually is. It's an infectious disease caused by the influenza virus, which affects your respiratory system. Spread mostly through the air by people's coughs or sneezes, its symptoms generally include a runny nose, high fever, sore throat, muscle pains, fatigue, and, in my experience at least, hours of sobbing on the phone to your mother. Although it generally lasts less than a week, in some cases, complications from the flu can lead to more serious and life-threatening conditions like pneumonia.
Every year during flu season, which can last from October to May, thousands of Americans come down with the flu. According to the CDC, since 2010 there have been between 140,000 to 710,000 flu-related hospitalizations, and 12,000 to 56,000 flu-related deaths.
"An annual seasonal flu vaccine is the best way to reduce your risk of getting sick with seasonal flu and spreading it to others," writes the CDC. "When more people get vaccinated against the flu, less flu can spread through that community." Still, myths persist that make many people hesitant to get their vaccine.
"Every year, it's the same battle. Every year, I urge my patients to get the influenza vaccine. And every year, they come up with a bucketful of excuses why they shouldn't," Dr. Jennifer Caudle wrote for CNN.
One of the most persistent myths (and one of which I have been guilty of perpetuating myself ever since I came down with a soul-crushing flu the day after I got the shot) is that getting the vaccine will give you the flu. But experts like Dr. Caudle are unequivocal: the flu vaccine, whether administered as a shot or as a nasal spray, cannot give you the flu. It takes antibodies a couple of weeks to develop in the body, which means for two weeks after the shot, you're still vulnerable to coming down with the flu — the shot does not "give" the flu to you. This is just another reason to get your flu shot as soon as possible, so your body has time to develop its resistances before the influenza virus comes out in full swing.
It's true, however, that flu vaccines are not 100 percent effective. For the 2016-2017 flu season, the vaccine was only about 50 percent effective, meaning half the people who got the shot still got the flu. And while these numbers may be less than encouraging, getting the vaccine still drastically reduces your chances of getting sick, and having to miss school, work, and possibly a paycheck.
And if you're worried about the pain or side effects of getting a flu shot, Dr. Caudle says "most potential side effects of the vaccine are nothing, compared to how bad you'd feel if you had to suffer through the actual flu."
So yes, it's really important to get your flu vaccine, and the sooner the better. Fortunately, it's pretty easy to do. Many companies offer flu shots for their employees, but if yours doesn't, most major pharmacies and retailers like CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, and Rite-Aid offer the vaccine. And if you don't have insurance or access to a free vaccine, the shot usually only costs about $30, a small price to pay to avoid coughing and groaning in your bed for three days.