To Flu or not to Flu- The Real Deal about Influenza and the Flu shot

By Frank J. Contacessa MD

As we leave summer behind us and head into the fall and winter, we also head into cold and flu season. So begins my annual effort to dispel the many falsely held beliefs that so many people hold about the influenza vaccine. First, let’s talk about the flu itself. Influenza is caused by a family of viruses, not bacteria. So, it is not treatable with antibiotics. We all know the common symptoms, some of which also occur with less severe “common cold” viral infections. Don’t let those similarities fool you, though, there’s no confusing a common cold with the flu. The symptoms of influenza are much worse, making you feel much sicker than with the common cold. There’s no such thing as “a touch of the flu”. That’s like being a touch pregnant! A bad cold is not influenza. Most people never forget having had the flu, it makes you that sick. The flu is no joke, many people die every year from it. It usually hits hardest among the very old, the very young, or the very sick.

Ok, now let’s move on to the vaccine. The flu shot has been around for many years, the techniques used to make it are not new. We need to revaccinate yearly, because the flu virus changes form (mutates) frequently. We have different strains that predominate every year. Since it takes a year to make the vaccine, scientists try to guess what next year’s strains will be. They are surprisingly good at it, nailing the right strain about 75% of the time. Many people also worry about vaccines that contain mercury, which has been used as a preservative in multiple dose vials. Most doctors now stock vaccines in single dose syringes that do NOT contain mercury.

Does the vaccine make you sick? The vaccine is not live, and only contains the outer protein coat of the virus. It does not, and cannot give you the flu. It can react with your immune system, causing a low-grade temperature in some people. It also does not cause or prevent the common cold. I think that the reason so many believe that the shot made them sick is because we vaccinate during a season when the cold virus is also very common. Like most physicians, I do encourage the vaccine for just about everyone. Not only do you decrease your chances of getting sick, it also helps control the spread of flu among the general population. So, it’s not only good to keep yourself healthy, you’re helping your neighbor as well! Stay healthy, and have a great winter!