Flu Shot: Pros and Cons
Seasonal flu is surprisingly common, with an estimated 10-20% of us in the West affected each and every year.
Unlike the common cold, with which it is often confused, the condition we know as “flu” or “influenza” is potentially far more serious. Flu is often accompanied by feelings of extreme tiredness, fever and aches in muscles and joints that can severely impact everyday activities.
Worse, flu has the potential to negatively impact a range of other health conditions. Little wonder then that each year the NHS is inundated with individuals requiring hospitalisation as a result of influenza. In some cases flu has even been implicated in cases of mortality.
Each year the British healthcare system tries to protect us from flu infections thanks to a widespread vaccination program. Oddly, even individuals in apparently high risk groups often forego the flu jab - even when it is available to them free of charge.
So should you consider getting a flu shot?
In this article we're going to examine some of the most important pros and cons of the flu shot, allowing you to make an informed decision about what is best for your unique situation.
Flu Shot Pros
There are a number of reasons why so many people do opt to have a flu shot each year. Let's start off by looking at some of the most important of these...
Reduces Your Chances of Becoming Infected
First and foremost, having a flu shot statistically reduces your chances of becoming infected with the influenza virus.
While the common cold and influenza are often confused, with people believing that a heavy cold must be flu, the symptoms of influenza can be quite different. Indeed, some flu sufferers barely experience the runny or blocked nose that colds are famous for. Instead, the muscle pain and fatigue experienced by flu victims have the potential to require long-term bed rest. This is far from a pleasant experience so many people opt to reduce their chances of infection through immunisation.
A study aimed to assess just how effective flu vaccines really are at protecting individuals from infection. 359 people were observed over a period of three years and were randomly assigned to receive either a flu vaccine or a placebo. They found that just 1.7% of those individuals receiving the flu shot developed symptoms of flu, in contrast to almost 14% of those given the placebo. Blood samples taken suggested that in this study the vaccine efficiency was as high as 89% in offering protection from the flu virus.
Therefore, don't be fooled into thinking that the flu vaccine doesn't offer any protection from infection; the science certainly supports the concept of vaccinations, especially for high-risk groups.
Cases of Infection May Be Milder
Whilst having a flu shot does not absolutely guarantee you total protection against the flu, further evidence suggests that it may help to reduce the severity of symptoms, as well as speeding up recovery times. Therefore even if you are unfortunate enough to contract the flu after having your injection, you may still be glad that you received your flu jab.
Helps to Limit the Spread of Influenza
Seasonal flu, by its very nature, tends to rampage through the population like a wildfire. Such epidemics can rapidly get out of control as each individual victim infects many others. Having a flu jab not only therefore reduces the chances of becoming infected yourself, but in doing so you also reduce the risk of passing on the virus to others.
While this might not sound like a particularly exciting pro for the flu jab, it can be particularly relevant for individuals working with high-risk candidates such as those in schools, nurseries or in retirement care homes. As the influenza virus tends to affect such individuals far more seriously, ensuring that you are doing your bit to protect others can make a lot of sense.
Increases Protection Against the Latest Viruses
One of the things that makes fighting influenza such a challenging occupation is that the virus is known to evolve rapidly. The strains causing problems this year may not be the same as last year and so on. Just because you've had the flu before, or have even received flu shots in previous years, there is no guarantee of protection because your antibodies may be adapted for a very different flu strain.
Additionally, it is important to remember that our immunity falls over time, so the longer it is since you last had an injection, the lower your level of protection is likely to be.
A major pro of the flu shot is therefore “updating” your protection to ensure that your body is ready to fight off the very latest strains.
Saves You Taking Time Off Work
While many of us struggle through a cold at work, it is rare that a serious bout of influenza doesn't result in at least a few days recovering in bed. Time off work can be inconvenient for employers and fellow colleagues. Depending on your workplace policy you may even find that you're not paid for your time off, which therefore has financial implications for you.
Helps to Protect You From Associated Health Conditions
Influenza isn't a pleasant infection at the best of times. However, the impact of flu can be magnified many times in cases where secondary health conditions are affected. Asthmatics, for example, can find that they begin to experience serious attacks on a more regular basis.
According to the CDC, flu is also associated with the onset of problems such as sinus and ear infections, pneumonia and potentially life-threatening conditions such as inflammation of the heart, brain or muscle tissues. A flu shot can help to reduce the chances of suffering from such conditions, which may require hospitalisation and long-term care. Remember, also, that flu is implicated in a number of deaths each year, usually as a result of one or more of these associated secondary health conditions.
Does Not Have to Require an Injection
Lastly, one common reason for people refusing to get a flu shot is simply that they're scared of needles. Such a fear is not to be underestimated and can cause real distress in those individuals affected. Fortunately, advancements in medical care means that it is now possible to have a “flu shot” without actually needing an injection; a modern alternative (often given to children) involves a simple nasal spray. A fear of needles should therefore not stop you from considering a flu shot this year.
Flu Shot Cons
As we have seen, there are an awful lot of benefits to having a flu shot. Indeed, right now you might be wondering why anyone wouldn't have the injection. As we know, however, many people opt not to have one each year - so what are some of the cons of the flu shot?
Does Not Guarantee Protection from Infection
One of the biggest cons to the flu shot is that while studies show that it does reduce your chances of being infected, it does not guarantee that you won't suffer from the flu at all.
The reality is that the flu strains most likely to cause infection are identified by the World Health Organization (WHO) each year, and this information is then used to direct the immunisation process of the NHS.
At the same time, as previously mentioned, flu evolves so quickly that by the time the vaccine has been manufactured and distributed it may offer less protection than originally thought. In addition, the time between manufacture and you actually receiving your jab may also impact the level of protection received.
Scientists examined over 5,700 articles on the subject of influenza in order to ascertain just how effective immunisation might be. After an extensive pooling and analysis of data they confidently summarised that immunisation does offer a measure of protection, but that “protection is greatly reduced or absent in some seasons”.
This means that if you have received a flu shot in the past and were still struck down with infection there is no reason to suggest this will be a recurring feature. As levels of protection can vary over time, often in response to so-called “antigenic shift”, you should still aim to have a flu vaccine each year if it is available to “top up” your immunity.
Full Immunity Can Take Time to Develop
Getting a flu shot does not confer instant protection from infection. Instead, it takes time for your body to build up the necessary antibodies to reduce your chances of suffering from flu. Of course, a range of factors can affect your immune system's ability to complete this process, with immunocompromised individuals taking longer to develop immunity.
For example, vitamins C and D both have roles to play in maintaining a healthy and effective immune system, so if you are concerned about influenza then ensure you're getting a suitable diet rich in vitamins and minerals. Alternatively consider bulking up your protection with a multivitamin supplement.
In the interim period even those individuals that have had an injection may still find themselves being struck down with infection. Sadly, sometimes this is erroneously self-diagnosed by sufferers that the flu vaccine itself gave them flu. This discourages such sufferers from taking part in future immunisation schemes. Indeed, one study found that 43% of people believe that the flu jab gives you flu, and that this is one of the most common reasons not to have the jab.
Rest assured that the science tells this is not the case, but instead some people are simply unlucky enough to be infected before their body has had the chance to build up full immunity.
May Impact Your Health for a Short Time After Immunisation
There is some evidence that another con of the flu shot is that a minority of people may suffer from mild side effects for a period of around a week after their injection. This is normally experienced in the form of cold-like symptoms such as a sore throat or runny nose, though the severity is usually mild, and most people are back to full health in a week or less.
Small Risk of Other Health Complications
There has been some scare-mongering in recent years that the flu vaccine may also increase the odds of suffering from more serious side effects. Possibly the best-known of these is the link between the flu shot and Guillain-Barre syndrome - an autoimmune condition that affects the nerves.
While this is often given as a reason for not getting the flu shot, studies have shown that the risk factors are very different. As one expert put it “by not accepting the vaccine, such individuals accept risks that are orders of magnitude higher”. They also point out the 20,000+ deaths in the USA each year as a result of influenza compared to the tiny handful of Guillain-Barre cases experienced as a result of influenza vaccinations.
Pros Vs Cons: Should I Have a Flu Shot?
Studies suggest that the flu vaccine, while not 100% effective, still significantly reduces your chances of health-related problems overall.
One study looked at individuals aged 65 or greater and compared the incidence of various flu-related conditions between those that had received either a flu jab or a placebo injection. They found that those individuals benefitting from the flu shot were 56% less likely to suffer from respiratory illness, 53% less likely to suffer from pneumonia and were 50% less likely to end up in hospital than individuals not receiving the vaccination.
Another study found smaller, yet still significant results, in older individuals. The scientists claimed that their evidence demonstrated a 35% reduction in flu symptoms, a 33% reduction in hospitalisation and a 50% overall drop in influenza-related mortality.
This evidence quite clearly underlines the recurring theme seen within this article; while the flu shot does not confer 100% protection, you're still a lot safer having it than not. It's a bit like doing up your seatbelt when you get into the car - it doesn't guarantee protection but your odds of getting through an incident are improved enough to make it worthwhile.
Bearing in mind that influenza is claimed to be responsible for between 20,000 and 50,000 deaths per year in the USA alone each year the few potential cons of having a flu jab seem like a risk well worth taking.
Who Can Have the Flu Vaccine on the NHS?
As getting flu can have serious consequences for some groups, the NHS provides free flu vaccinations for those who are considered high risk. If you are at risk, you should have the vaccination even if you feel healthy. If you fall into one of the below groups, simply speak to your GP about getting vaccinated:
- Pregnant women
- Children aged 2, 3 or 4 years
- Adults aged 65 years or over
- Individuals who have:
- Heart problems
- Breathing difficulties or a chest complaint, including asthma
- Kidney or liver disease
- A neurological condition or have suffered a stroke
- Lowered immunity
- Spleen problems
Those who work in health and social care, or who are the carers of elderly or disabled people are also recommended to have the vaccination.
Tips for a Healthy Immune System
Currently, the most effective way of preventing flu is the vaccination. In general, however, there are lots of things you can incorporate into your lifestyle to assist your immune system in its normal functioning.
Enjoy a Balanced, Healthy Diet Rich in Plant Matter
A huge range of different nutrients can have an impact on your immune system, and these days many of us rely far too much on low quality pre-packed or junk food for ease. Most vitamins play some kind of role in the immune system, including acting as antioxidants (such as vitamins A, C and E). Minerals such as zinc are also important to immune health.
In order to ensure your immune system is getting all the nutrients it needs, aim for a balance of carbohydrates, fats and proteins, all of which are necessary to provide energy, support functions and maintain cell structure. What is more, eat a healthy diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables which will provide essential vitamins and minerals to support a healthy immune system.
Get Outside More Often
It was thought that vitamin D's role in the body was simply to help the body to utilise calcium and phosphorous; crucial building blocks of a healthy skeleton. More recently, however, researchers have made exciting discoveries to suggest that vitamin D also plays an important role in the maintenance of a healthy immune system.
Vitamin D levels in food can be quite low, and the best option is to get outside in the sunshine. When exposed to sunlight the skin is able to generate significant volumes of vitamin D. Sadly, during the winter months it is believed that the sunlight experienced in the UK is not strong enough to drive this process. Under these circumstances the government now recommends that we all supplement with vitamin D throughout the darker months of the year.
Make Use of Supplements to Support Immune Health
If you suspect you're lacking in some vitamins or minerals, consider a multivitamin that provides adequate amounts of a few nutrients, to give you a general top up. Some great options to consider are zinc supplements and vitamin C tablets.
Look After Your Energy Levels
Make sure you're getting enough sleep each night to give your body chance to repair itself and don't forget to fit in some exercise during your day. Moderate physical activity, consisting of around 30 minutes a day, can benefit your immune system and in general is associated with good health, though don't overdo it as this may decrease markers of good immune health (e.g. those doing intense training regularly).
Everyone has their own opinion on the pros and cons of the flu jab, with many people refusing to have it each winter despite being considered in a high risk category. The evidence gathered in the process of researching this article suggests that the young, old and those with pre-existing medical conditions may be well advised to get an annual flu shot. While the effectiveness of the protection conveyed may vary by year, the overall impact is positive.