“Do I really need to get a flu shot?”

—Leah M., Michigan Technological University


Yes.

An emphatic yes if you are in one of these categories:

  • You are at higher risk for complications from influenza; for example, asthma or any other chronic lung issue.
  • You are at higher risk for complications of infections; for example, if you are immune compromised because of illness (such as immune deficiency or diabetes) or treatment (some people with Crohn’s disease, for example, use medications that suppress the immune system).
  • You have sickle cell disease.
  • You are pregnant.
  • You are of American Indian or Native Alaskan descent.

A strong yes if you are in one of these categories:

  • You are a student in a residential setting. Young adults tend to congregate. When they congregate, they tend to share things like food and hugs and kisses. This kind of close interaction, wonderful as it may be in many regards, is very effective at transmitting illnesses.
  • If you like the idea of not feeling miserable for a week to 10 days. Influenza can be brutal. Flu symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, and fatigue. Most students with flu are unable to attend class or even keep up with reading/studying for several days. Complications of influenza can include sinus infections, ear infections, pneumonia, and more serious conditions.

The influenza virus is highly contagious and has three particularly devious traits:

  • It can be spread in the day prior to onset of symptoms—before the affected individual feels sick enough to separate themselves from others.
  • It can be spread to someone as far as six feet away (cover that cough!). Here’s what the CDC website says: “Most experts think that flu viruses are spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze, or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.”
  • It can last a long time on surfaces; particles ejected by an uncovered cough or sneeze can land on a counter or tabletop and survive there for a day or two. If an unsuspecting person touches that surface, and then touches a mucus membrane such as the eye or mouth, they can get infected by the virus.

Does the flu shot have a downside?

There aren’t really any significant downsides to influenza vaccination. It is usually covered by insurance, or is inexpensive. It has minimal side effects: sometimes a little soreness in the arm for a day or two, sometimes some fever and mild muscle aches for a day. Each year, a new flu shot is available that provides protection from the influenza viruses that are expected to circulate widely that season. The 2015–16 flu shot was a very good match for the types of flu that were circulating. The match is not always perfect, but even if the flu vaccine doesn’t contain the influenza virus that you are exposed to, it may make an influenza infection less intense and shorter than it would otherwise have been.

Unfortunately, the protection we get from a flu vaccine wanes within a year. An annual vaccination is needed to get the best protection against the flu. On the plus side, young healthy people get a strong, relatively long-lasting immune response from influenza vaccine. Get yours in September before you are at greater risk of exposure and while supplies are plentiful.

+ Find fine flu facts (CDC)

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Dr. Davis Smith is a practicing internist and a staff physician at the University of Connecticut. He specializes in the care of transgender, gay and lesbian, and adolescent patients. Previously he worked at Trinity College and Wesleyan University.