The Corner Cubicle: The Truth About Flu Shots

The Corner Cubicle: The Truth About Flu Shots

They won't give you the flu, and it's not all about you.

It's that time of year. Yes, we're smack in the heart of cold and flu season – a miserable stretch from late fall to early spring when our office becomes a sick ward, and every cough, handshake and touch of a doorknob can make us sick. 

Every year, invariably, it seems as if there are spirited debates on the merits of flu shots. Some folks swear by them, while others are convinced that they're a waste of time and money. Still others believe that they do more harm than good. 

I've learned the hard way that getting an annual flu shot is an absolute necessity for surviving the winter months. However – and much to the consternation of public health officials – not everyone shares my point of view.

"People who are reluctant to get the flu shot often believe that it isn't worthwhile or that the shot may give them the flu instead of protecting them from it, neither of which is correct," says Gary Noskin, M.D., senior vice president and chief medical officer for Northwestern Memorial Hospital. "We know that between 5 to 20 percent of the population contracts the flu each season, and the majority of them have not been vaccinated." 

According to Noskin (and the vast majority of public health officials): "Early vaccination is the most important way to keep yourself from getting sick with influenza." 

If you or your team members still aren't convinced that a flu shot is the best line of defense against influenza, Noskin offers these antidotes to some of the most common myths regarding flu shots: 

  • Getting a flu shot cannot cause the flu. If someone already is infected with the virus, it's possible for him or her to get sick after receiving the flu shot. Also, it's possible that some mild flu-like symptoms might occur after getting the flu shot (I can attest to this). However, Noskin notes that these symptoms are rare. "Every flu shot contains a form of the virus that is inactive and no longer infectious," he says. "Getting vaccinated cannot give someone the flu." 
  • Healthy people should get a flu shot too. Being healthy can help prevent someone from getting the flu, but no one is immune – which is why getting the flu shot is so important, Noskin says. Young children, the elderly and pregnant women are at a higher risk for serious flu complications than the general public under any circumstance, so it's especially important for these individuals to get vaccinated, even if they're healthy. "People living with chronic diseases such as diabetes, asthma or cardiovascular disease are also more likely to be severely impacted by the flu," Noskin says. "Individuals with these conditions should always make sure they are vaccinated." 
  • Just because you make it through the heart of winter without catching the flu doesn't mean you're in the clear. While the height of the flu season often occurs during the coldest time of the year, it also can take place in the fall or early spring, and it can last through multiple seasons. The flu is not dependent on cold temperatures. CDC states that the peak of flu season has occurred anywhere from late November through March, so while it isn't too late to get a flu shot in January, it's best to get it earlier in the season for the best protection. 
  • Getting a flu shot is important for your health and for the health of those around you. "Passing on the flu to loved ones, co-workers or anyone you happen to stand next to is very easy," Noskin says. "Just one cough or sneeze sends thousands of tiny, infectious droplets into the air, which can infect anyone who is at risk for serious complications from the flu. Interestingly, you can start spreading the flu up to 24 hours before developing any symptoms and find out you have been infected." 

To reiterate Noskin's last point: Getting a flu shot is not just about you. Most of us know or work with a John Wayne type who prefers to "power through" every illness and ailment without seeking medical treatment or taking measures to prevent another occurrence. These folks subscribe to the notion that what doesn't kill them makes them stronger.

Unfortunately, if you're in a high-risk group (small children, pregnant women, senior citizens and people with certain medical conditions), influenza can kill you. And even when it doesn't kill you, it can kill workplace productivity and make your life miserable, not to mention the lives of those around you.

So what's your excuse for not getting a flu shot? 

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