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Do I Really Need A Flu Shot?

Blue Shield of California's chief medical officer gives insight into flu season amid a pandemic

Dr. Susan Fleischman, chief medical officer for Blue Shield of California, answers questions about the flu shot and its importance during the on-going COVID-19 pandemic. 

Why is it especially important to get a flu shot this year?  

Protecting yourself, your family, and your local communities from the flu has never been more important. The flu and COVID-19 have similar symptoms, and both can be severe, even deadly. The flu shot does not protect you from COVID-19, only the COVID-19 vaccine can do that.  And the COVID-19 vaccine does not protect you from the flu.  

Dr. Susan Fleischman

Getting both vaccines is the best way to reduce your chances of becoming severely ill from either virus. I urge all Californians to get a flu shot this year to curb the spread of the virus, lessen the strain on our healthcare system and protect vulnerable populations.

Does the flu really cause a strain on the healthcare system? Don’t most people just recover at home?

Most people do recover from the flu at home, but the flu can be a very serious illness, especially for young children, older people and immunocompromised individuals. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that during the 2018–2019 flu season 35.5 million people got sick, 16.5 million people went to a healthcare provider for flu treatment, 490,600 people were hospitalized, and 34,200 people died. Pair this with a possible COVID-19 surge and all the other reasons people need to seek care – accidents, heart attacks, strokes – and you will see healthcare systems under great strain. Vaccines can help us avoid this situation.

How will the flu vaccine help me during the upcoming flu season? 

The flu vaccine is the best protection from getting the flu and, if you do get sick, can make your illness shorter and less severe. Similar to last year, flu viruses and the virus that causes COVID-19 will both be active during flu season. 

Flu viruses are constantly changing, so the vaccine composition is reviewed each year and updated as needed based on predictions of which influenza viruses will be present during the upcoming flu season. This is why it’s important to get one each year. 

Is the flu shot safe?

Yes, the flu shot is safe. Serious allergic reactions to flu vaccines are very rare. If they do occur, it is usually within a few minutes to a few hours after vaccination. While these reactions can be life-threatening, effective treatments are available. The flu shot cannot make you sick with the flu and does not cause autism

Flu vaccines have a 50-year history of safety. Hundreds of millions of people in the U.S. have received flu shots over the past five decades, and extensive research during this period supports the safety of receiving a flu vaccine. 

Can the flu vaccine give you the flu?
No, flu vaccines cannot give you the flu. Flu vaccines given with a needle are currently made in the following ways: 

  • Flu viruses that have been inactivated, or killed, and therefore are not infectious. 
  • Flu viruses that have been attenuated, or weakened, so that they will not cause illness. 
  • A single gene from a flu virus (as opposed to the full virus) in order to produce an immune response without causing infection. 

Some people report having mild side effects after flu vaccination. The most common side effects from flu shots are soreness, redness, tenderness or swelling where the shot was given. Low-grade fever, headache and muscle aches also may occur. If these reactions occur, they usually begin soon after vaccination and last 1 to 2 days. 

Why did I get sick after I got the flu shot?
There are several reasons why someone might get flu symptoms, even after they have been vaccinated against flu.

  • You can become ill from another respiratory virus around the same time that they get their shot – Rhinovirus, Norovirus, COVID-19 and other viruses are also circulating during flu season. 
  • If you are exposed to the flu before you’re fully vaccinated (two weeks after getting the shot) you could get sick. 
  • Each year, the flu vaccine is designed to fight the strains that medical experts believe will be in circulation. You could still get the flu if you come into contact with a strain that the vaccine doesn’t fight. 
  • No vaccine is 100 percent effective at stopping infection, but the flu vaccine, like the COVID-19 vaccine, can reduce the severity of your illness if you do get the flu. 

If we come together to get vaccinated, follow public health safety guidelines like masking, social distancing, and washing hands often, we can reduce the severity of not only the flu virus, but other viruses this winter.