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What Should I Know about the Flu Vaccine?

Oct 23, 2015

In a recent New York Times Ask Well blog, a reader asks "Thirty-five years ago, my husband's healthy college roommate died from a reaction to the swine flu vaccine. Neither of us has ever had a flu shot, preferring to take our chances with the illness, if we catch it. As healthy individuals in our late 50's, is this sensible? Have the risks changed since 1977?" This may reflect the concerns of many other individuals, who are worried about whether or not the flu vaccine carries any health risks.

The flu vaccine can be given either as a shot and a nasal spray. According to NYT, each carries small, separate risks. Some individuals are concerned about whether the vaccination can give you the flu; the flu shot does not carry this risk because it contains a dead virus. It can, however, cause a low-grade fever and headache, along with a sore arm. Patients with egg allergies may also be at risk of allergic reactions, since the vaccine in the shot is grown in egg. Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician and associate hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, says there may also be a risk of Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare nerve disorder, in a very small number of people getting the flu shot. Individuals should seek professional advice if they developed the condition within six months of a previous flu shot.

Year of research have failed to find a link between thimerosal, the mercury-based preservative in vaccines, and autism.

There is a risk of getting the flu with FluMist, the flu vaccine in the form of a nasal spray, since it contains the live virus. However, this risk mostly only applies to individuals with a weakened immune system, such as pregnant women, children younger than two, people undergoing cancer treatment and frail elderly individuals. In patients with asthma or recent wheezing, the nasal spray should not be used. FluMist should also not be given to children taking aspirin because it has been linked to Reye's syndrome, an extremely rare condition that causes swelling of the liver and brain.

The risks of the flu "are much higher than the risks of the flu vaccine" according to Dr. Doron. Flu vaccinations protect not only the patient receiving it, but also the people around them, including infants and the elderly. "When you get the flu shot, it's for yourself and it's for everybody else," said Doron, according to NYT.

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