Every winter, the influenza virus causes epidemics of flu in communities throughout the country. This year may be especially burdensome due to the COVID-19 pandemic happening at the same time.

Flu is highly contagious. It causes hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations and thousands of deaths each year.

The influenza vaccine is available every year to help protect people from coming down with flu. But is it safe? And how important is it now that COVID-19 is a factor?

Read on to learn about the benefits and risks of the flu shot.

The flu vaccine is very safe, although there are some groups of people that shouldn’t get it. They include:

  • children less than 6 months of age
  • people who have had a severe reaction to the flu vaccine or any of its ingredients
  • those with egg or mercury allergies
  • those with Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS)

Can the flu vaccine give me the flu?

A common worry is that the flu vaccine can give you the flu. This isn’t possible.

The flu vaccine is made from an inactivated form of the influenza virus or virus components that can’t cause infection. Some individuals do experience side effects that will typically go away in a day or so. These include:

  • low-grade fever
  • swollen, red, tender area around the injection site
  • chills or headache

1. Flu prevention

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), receiving the influenza vaccine is the most effective way to prevent yourself from becoming sick with the flu.

2. Feeling less sick

It’s still possible to get the flu after vaccination. If you do get sick with the flu, your symptoms may be milder if you got the vaccination.

3. Lower risk of hospitalizations or complications for certain people

Influenza vaccination has been shown to lead to a lower risk of influenza-related complications or hospitalizations in some groups. They include:

4. Protection within the community

When you protect yourself from the flu through vaccination, you’re also protecting those who can’t get vaccinated from catching the flu. This includes those who are too young to get vaccinated. This is called herd immunity and is very important.

1. Still getting the flu

Sometimes you can get the flu shot and still come down with the flu. It takes around 2 weeks after receiving the vaccination for your body to develop immunity. During this time, you can still get catch the flu.

Another reason why you can still catch the flu is if there wasn’t a good “vaccine match.” Researchers need to decide which strains to include in the vaccine many months before flu season actually starts.

When there’s not a good match between the selected strains and the strains that actually end up circulating during flu season, the vaccine isn’t as effective.

2. Severe allergic reaction

Some people may have a negative reaction to the flu shot. If you have a negative reaction to the vaccine, symptoms usually occur within minutes to hours after receiving the vaccine. Symptoms may include:

  • difficulty breathing
  • wheezing
  • rapid heartbeat
  • rash or hives
  • swelling around the eyes and mouth
  • feeling weak or dizzy

If you experience these symptoms after getting the flu vaccine, see your doctor. If the reaction is severe, go to the emergency room.

3. Guillain-Barré syndrome

Guillain-Barré syndrome is a rare condition where your immune system begins to attack your peripheral nerves. It’s very rare, but influenza virus vaccination can trigger the condition.

If you’ve already had Guillain-Barré syndrome, speak to your doctor before getting vaccinated.

The influenza vaccine can be delivered as either an injection or as a nasal spray.

The flu shot can come in a variety of forms that protect against three or four influenza strains. Although no type of flu shot is recommended over others, you should speak to your doctor about which one is best for you.

The nasal spray contains a small dose of a live, but weakened form of the influenza virus.

The nasal spray wasn’t recommended for the 2017 to 2018 influenza season due to concern for low levels of effectiveness. But either is recommended for the 2020 to 2021 season. This is because the formulation for the spray is now more effective.

The flu vaccine is needed every year for two reasons.

The first is that your body’s immune response to influenza decreases over time. Receiving the vaccine every year helps you have continued protection.

The second reason is that the influenza virus is constantly changing. This means that the viruses that were prevalent in the previous flu season may not be in the upcoming season.

The flu vaccine is updated every year to include protection against the influenza viruses most likely to circulate in the upcoming flu season. A seasonal flu shot is the most effective protection.

The CDC recommends that children over 6 months of age receive the flu vaccine. Children under 6 months old are too young to receive the vaccine.

Flu vaccine side effects in babies are similar to those in adults. They may include:

  • low-grade fever
  • muscle aches
  • soreness at the injection site

Some children between ages 6 months and 8 years may need two doses. Ask your child’s doctor how many doses your child needs.

Pregnant women should get the flu vaccine every year. Changes in your immune system during pregnancy lead to an increased risk of severe illness or hospitalization due to influenza.

Both the CDC and American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommend pregnant women get the seasonal flu shot in any trimester of pregnancy.

Additionally, receiving the flu vaccine can help protect your baby. In the months after birth, if you breastfeed, you can pass anti-influenza antibodies to your baby through breast milk.

While the flu vaccine has had a strong safety record in pregnant women, a 2017 study did raise some safety concerns. Researchers found an association between miscarriage and flu vaccination in the preceding 28 days.

It’s important to note that this study only included a small number of women. Additionally, the association was only statistically significant in women who had received a vaccine containing the pandemic H1N1 strain in the previous season.

While additional studies need to be completed to investigate this concern, both the CDC and the ACOG still strongly recommend that all pregnant women receive the flu vaccine.

Manufacturers typically begin shipping the flu vaccine in August. People are often encouraged to receive the vaccine as soon as it’s available.

However, a 2017 study found that protection begins to wane over time following vaccination. Since you’ll want to be protected throughout the entire flu season, you may not want to get your vaccine too early.

Most doctors recommend that everyone gets their flu vaccine by the end of October or before the virus begins to circulate in your community.

If you don’t receive your vaccination by the end of October, it isn’t too late. Getting vaccinated later can still provide protection against the influenza virus.

Every fall and winter, millions of people get the flu. Receiving the flu vaccine is a very effective way to prevent yourself and your family from developing the flu.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is a factor since a person can acquire it and other respiratory infections like the flu at the same time. Getting the flu shot will help to decrease the dangers for everyone.

There are many benefits to influenza vaccination, as well as some associated risks. If you have questions or concerns about influenza vaccination, be sure to speak to your doctor about them.