What It Is and What It Protects Against

The flu (influenza) virus attacks the respiratory system (the nose, throat, and lungs) producing symptoms which include sore throat, runny nose, and fever.(the most recent flu was dangerous to young people – the above statement is generally true, but we do not want to say young people should not get vaccinated, particularly since they are around old and young people). The people most at risk at risk—the very young and the very old, pregnant women, people with compromised immune systems or chronic illness—are in danger of developing complications like pneumonia, bronchitis, or sinus infections.

If you’ve already had the flu or vaccination against it, your immune system recognizes the virus next time around and is prepared to fight it. What your immune system can’t do is fight new forms of the virus, and flu is constantly mutating. This is why it is so important to get a flu shot every year; receiving a shot one year does not mean you will be protected when the next bout of influenza comes to town.

General Use

Annual flu shots are recommended for all ages, starting at 6 months old. Formerly promoted for adults over 65, there has been a shift in recent years encouraging all age groups to receive the shot. Additionally, elderly people living in nursing homes as well as care-givers and health care workers are urged to get vaccinated.

While the CDC encourages people to get a vaccination, the flu vaccine is not 100 percent effective. Preventive measures to help stop the spread of infection include frequently washing your hands, covering sneezes and coughs (into a tissue or your elbow), and staying away from crowds. 

Who Should Not Get It

Anyone who meets the following criteria should not get the flu vaccine:

  • allergy to chicken eggs
  • past reaction to the flu vaccine
  • infants less than 6 months old
  • anyone who is currently moderately-to-severely ill is advised to wait until a full recovery before getting vaccinated
  • any individual who developed Guillain- Barré Syndrome (GBS) within 6 weeks of receiving the flu shot

Potential Side Effects

Though the risk of serious harm from the vaccine is small compared with the actual untreated disease, the vaccine does hold some risk, from mild to severe side effects.

Mild side effects include:

  • soreness or swelling at the site of the shot
  • fever
  • sore, red, or itchy eyes
  • hoarseness, or cough
  • achiness

Severe side effects include:

  • serious allergic reaction, though rare

*A former swine flu vaccine was linked to Guillain Barré syndrome (GBS), a rare disorder in which the immune system damages the nerves of the body. While some cases resolve themselves on their own within weeks or months, some cases of GBS leave permanent nerve damage. Since the 1976 swine flu vaccine, cases between GBS and the seasonal flu vaccine are extremely rare (one or two per million people vaccinated, according to the CDC).