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Doctors Say: Seriously, Get a Flu Shot

Let's review the excuses. (Spoiler: None of them are good.)

Doctors are tired of your flu shot excuses, people. And they’re expressing their frustration the only way they know how: a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Let’s review the excuses, and let the good doctors school you.

Excuse #1: I never get the flu!

Science says: You’re being a bad neighbor.

Here’s JAMA:

While some people, such as healthy adults, may not develop a classic, severe influenza-like illness when infected (and a substantial proportion may have minimal to no symptoms), they likely still can transmit the virus to others.

And the CDC:

Anyone can become sick with the flu and experience serious complications. Older people, young children, pregnant women and people with medical conditions like asthma, diabetes, heart disease, or kidney disease are at especially high risk from the flu, but kids, teens and adults who are active and healthy also can get the flu and become very ill from it. Flu viruses are unpredictable, and every season puts you at risk. Besides, you might be around someone who’s at high risk from the flu…a baby…your grandparents, or even a friend. You don’t want to be the one spreading flu, do you?

Excuse #2: The vaccine doesn’t even work anyway!

Science says: You don’t understand what “effective” means do you?

Here’s JAMA:

Even though influenza vaccine is not as effective as other common vaccines, “not as effective” does not mean “not effective.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s midyear assessment of this season’s influenza vaccine’s effectiveness is 62% (95% CI, 51%-71%) for the prevention of medically attended acute respiratory illness. There also is a relatively good match between circulating and vaccine strains and, as a result, some mitigation of influenza morbidity. A prevention measure that reduced the risk of a serious outcome by 60% in most instances would be a noted achievement; yet for influenza vaccine, it is seen as a “failure.” Clearly, a better influenza vaccine, particularly a universal antigen vaccine that protects over several seasons, is needed, but this should not be a reason to neglect the current vaccine.

Excuse #3: But shots are terrible and painful!

Science says: Not as terrible and painful as the flu!

Here’s the CDC:

The very minor pain of a flu shot is nothing compared to the suffering that can be caused by the flu. The flu can make you very sick for several days; send you to the hospital, or worse. For most healthy, nonpregnant people ages 2 through 49 years old, the nasal-spray flu vaccine is a great choice for people who don’t like shots. Either way, a shot or spray can prevent you from catching the flu. So, whatever little discomfort you feel from the minor side effects of the flu vaccine is worthwhile to avoid the flu.

And CNN:

The flu kills. Each year nearly 40,000 people in the United States die from flu complications like pneumonia and heart failure. And more than 200,000 are hospitalized due to flu. The people at highest risk have lowered defenses: children ages 6 months to 5 years, pregnant women, people older than 50, and anyone with a chronic condition like asthma, diabetes, and heart or blood disorders.

Consumer Reports has some suggests for you to buck up:

Many people find that lying down for their shots helps them relax. And rising up slowly afterward helps prevent fainting, a problem that occurs in a small percentage of people who get the shot. Or, if necessary, talk with your doctor about getting the nasal spray.

Excuse #4: I’ve heard that the flu shot can actually give you the flu.

Science says: Nope.

Here’s JAMA:

The currently licensed influenza vaccines are LAIV and the inactivated vaccine. Neither vaccine can cause influenza infection.

Do you need a more clear statement than that? Ok, here’s the longer explanation:

The LAIV is an attenuated live viral vaccine with a temperature-sensitive adaptation that precludes replication of the virus at human core body temperatures. Secondary transmission from a person recently vaccinated with LAIV resulting in clinically important illness has not been reported. The inactivated vaccine contains only killed virus and viral antigens and also cannot cause influenza infection. Placebo-controlled randomized trials have not noted a higher frequency of systemic reactions in vaccine recipients when compared with those receiving placebo. Undoubtedly, people may develop an influenza-like illness or even laboratory-confirmed influenza after vaccination. This does not mean the illness was vaccine induced but rather was likely due to a noninfluenza viral infection (as other viruses, such as respiratory syncytial virus, also circulate during influenza season), exposure to influenza before immunity from the vaccine had time to develop, or the fact that the vaccine is not 100% effective.

The JAMA article dispels a few more myths. (No, flu shots won’t kill people with egg allergies. Yes, pregnant people should get flu shots.) Now, compare to all of these very sound reasons for getting the shot some reasons not to get a flu shot. Dr. Katharine Garnier a physician at the New Jersey School of Osteopathic Medicine, lists a few:

Top 10 (Unwise) Reasons Not to get a Flu Shot This Year.

1. I’m feeling incredibly lucky this year.
2. The vaccine is inexpensive so it probably doesn’t work.
3. I’m not afraid of body aches…or headaches…or sore throats…or dangerously high fevers…and I never get sick!
4. I like the idea of having a real reason to call out sick from work.
5. That cute little paper mask over my nose and mouth is a trendy fashion statement.
6. Getting really, really sick is a great way to lose a few pounds without dieting.
7. I’m not planning to leave my house, or let anyone in, for the next six months anyway.
8. I’m anxious to find out if my insurance company really willcover a hospital stay.
9. I went to the county fair and didn’t get swine flu, so I must have a natural immunity.
10. Getting sick with the flu will give me a reason to visit relatives I don’t really like so that I can share the virus with them!

Moral of the story: seriously, people, get a flu shot.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Flu Shots for (Nearly) All
The Flu That’s Laying the Country Low Waited Nine Years to Strike

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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