Is it normal to feel sick after the flu shot?

“Mrs. Jones would like the flu vaccine today?”

“No, doc. When I was younger I would get it and always get sick, so now — at my age — I think I will pass on it this year and take my chances.”

This a very common exchange across all primary care providers’ office at this time of the year — and a great opportunity to really try to understand why Mrs. Jones feels that the vaccines made her sick, and an opportunity for educational awareness about the flu vaccine.

The influenza or “flu” is responsible for approximately 20,000 deaths per year on average in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

An effective, important way to protect yourself is by getting a flu shot — which should not actually give you the flu. There are many reasons why people don’t get the flu vaccine but I hope that, below, you will find facts and clarifications on common misconceptions about the vaccine.

1. What is the flu?

The flu “influenza” is an infection in the nose, throat and lungs caused by a virus. This maybe the worst cold of your life.

2. What are some of the symptoms of the flu?

The flu starts suddenly and hits hard. You’ll probably feel weak and tired, and have a fever, dry cough, runny nose, chills, muscle aches, severe headache, eye pain, and a sore throat.

3. How does the vaccine work?

Flu vaccines causes antibodies (cells responsible to fight off an infection) to develop in the body about 2 weeks after you get the shot. These antibodies provide protection against the virus. The seasonal flu vaccine protects against the influenza viruses that research indicates will be most common during the upcoming season. Traditionally it protects against 3 types of influenza: Influenza A,(H1N1), influenza A (H3N2) and influenza B.

4. Can I take medications instead of the flu shot?

No medications do not cure and are not recommended instead of the flu shot. Some prescriptions can help flu symptoms. Antibiotics don’t work against viruses. The medicines work by reducing the severity of symptoms if you start taking them soon after you begin to get sick.

5. What are side effects of the flu vaccine?

The side effects are mild and short lasting depending on if you get the flu shot or nasal spray, especially when compared to symptoms of bad case of flu.
Flu shot: soreness, redness or swelling where the shot was given, fever (low grade), aches
Nasal spray: runny nose, wheezing, headache, vomiting, muscle aches, fever.

6. Does the vaccine work right away?

No it takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies to develop in the body and provide protection against influenza. This is why you may develop the flu around the time you get a vaccine because you were exposed prior to getting the vaccine and were not protected at the time you got infected.

7. Can the flu vaccine give me the flu?

No although people do tend to link the two the vaccine cannot cause a flu illness. The reason being that the vaccine either has a killed (inactivated) form of the virus that is not infectious or it is made with proteins from a flu vaccine virus that is attenuated “weakened” and therefore cannot cause the flu.

8. What are the benefits of the flu vaccine?

The obvious one is that it keeps you from getting sick with the flu, reduces risk of hospitalization from the flu and protects people around you.

9. Where can I get the vaccine?

Grocery stores, pharmacies as well as doctor’s offices and hospitals offer flu shots. It does not matter where you go because they all use the same vaccine. It’s important just to get the flu vaccine as soon as possible.

10. Can I get flu even though I got a flu vaccine this year?

Yes, unfortunately because sometimes you may be exposed to a flu virus shortly before getting vaccinated, or because you may be exposed to a type of flux that is not included in the seasonal flu vaccine. The vaccine is not full proof but it is the best way to protect against flu infection.

For more information Speak to your doctor or go on CDC’s Vaccine supply & Distribution web site.

Dr. Tambetta Ojong is a family medicine resident at SUNY Downstate Medical Center and a member of the ABC News Medical Unit.

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