12/03/2013 03:52 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2014

Why You Need a Flu Shot

Who needs a flu shot?


Everybody over the age of 6 months should receive the vaccine. While flu cases tend to peak in January and February, the flu season can begin as early as October and can extend until May. Don't wait: Early vaccination is your best protection. In recent years, flu vaccines have been about 60 percent effective in preventing people from getting the flu.

When you get vaccinated, you protect both yourself and the people around you. If you don't get the flu, you can't "gift" it to your family and friends. This is critically important if you or the people you contact have serious health issues like heart and lung disease or compromised immune systems; in people with these health problems, a bout of the flu can be particularly dangerous and can even cause death.

People with egg allergies mistakenly fear flu vaccine because some vaccines are made with eggs and contain minute quantities of egg proteins. Let's lay that fear to rest. Flu vaccines are generally safe in people with egg allergies; the vaccines rarely cause a reaction. For those with truly severe egg allergies, we have a version of the flu vaccine that is made without eggs; this is approved for those 18 years of age or older.

Today in North America, the majority of people do not get vaccinated. As a result, each year more than 15 million people get the flu, and 200,000 require hospitalization.

This one is not a medical mystery. We know what causes the flu and you know how to prevent it. Don't be part of the unvaccinated majority.

If I had a flu shot last year, do I need one this year?


Each year we offer new versions of the flu vaccine, with the annual formulation targeted toward the particular virus strains we expect to see during the flu season. This means that last year's flu vaccine is not as likely to protect you from this year's flu.

In addition, the immunity you get from a flu shot gradually wears off over the course of the year. The bottom line -- don't rely on last year's shot to protect you from this year's flu.

Should I get the shot or the mist?

Your choice; both work.

The flu vaccine can be administered by injection (either into a muscle or under the skin) or by a mist inhaled in each nostril. Although the vaccines are different, they are equally effective. For obvious reasons, children tend to be happier if they get the nasal mist. This year, my kids received the nasal mist, while my wife and I took the shot. So far, none of us has developed the flu.

Can the flu vaccine make me sick?


The flu vaccine does not cause the flu. If you receive a flu shot, you may feel some soreness in your arm (I had no soreness this year). The injectable vaccines do not contain any live virus, so they simply can't cause the flu. Period.

The inhaled vaccine does contain an attenuated (weakened) virus. Most people develop no symptoms after receiving this vaccine. However, a small percentage may feel a bit run down or "off" the next day. If this feeling occurs, it will pass quickly.

Once you have had a flu vaccine, your body requires about two weeks to develop immunity. This explains what happens to people who say, "I had a flu shot on Monday and got the flu on Friday." They were exposed to the flu before they had developed immunity; vaccination after infection won't protect people from the flu. If they had received the flu vaccine earlier, they might have been immune by the time of exposure. The message here: Get vaccinated early.

Some fear that the flu vaccine can cause a rare neurologic condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome or that preservatives in some vaccine preparations can cause autism. The flu vaccine does NOT cause these problems.

Finally, the flu vaccine does not pose a risk for pregnant women; they should be vaccinated, receiving a shot rather than the nasal mist. According to the CDC, "Flu shots will protect pregnant women, their unborn babies and even protect the baby after birth."

Does the flu vaccine prevent heart attacks?

Only in a small group of people.

A recent study in the Journal of The American Medical Association (JAMA) suggested a link between influenza vaccine and a lower risk of heart attacks and related cardiovascular problems. Many media outlets took this a step further, suggesting that the flu vaccine actually prevents heart attacks. This statement goes a bit too far.

The vaccine might reduce the risk of subsequent heart problems in people who have suffered a recent heart attack. However, the flu vaccine probably does not have a large impact on heart health in the general population. But it does do one thing well: It reduces your risk of getting the flu!

So get vaccinated today!