Flu season has begun, which means that it’s flu shot time.
I see lots of different responses when I talk to families at our clinic about the flu shot. Some are happy to get it. Others are unsure, worried about side effects. Others plain old refuse.
Plain old refusal isn’t an option for me — as a doctor and an employee of Boston Children’s. I need to get it — and I did, last week (they were out of red lollipops, so I had to settle for purple). But even without being told to get it I would have. Because not only do I not want to get the flu (I got it once, and it was no fun), this isn’t just about me.
It’s not that I don’t know that there might be side effects, or that it might not work. I know that. But the side effects are usually mild (like some muscle soreness or feeling a bit icky for a day or two), and given that the flu can’t be counted on to be mild, I’ll take whatever protection I can get. Especially because this isn’t just about me.
This year, there are some new options when it comes to the flu shot. There is a quadrivalent version, meaning that it protects against four strains of the influenza virus instead of three. All of the nasal spray versions, or LAIV (live attenuated influenza virus) are quadrivalent, and there are injectable versions too. There is also a version made without any eggs at all (for those with severe egg allergies) and one that gets injected into the skin with a smaller needle (for those who really don’t like needles), although both at this point are only for adults, ages 18 and older. And for those 65 and older, who are more likely to end up hospitalized with flu, there is a high-dose version of the trivalent shot.
There are remarkably few people over the age of 6 months who shouldn’t get a flu shot. People with a history of an allergic reaction to the flu shot itself, or with a history of Guillain-Barre Syndrome (if you haven’t heard of it, you likely haven’t had it) shouldn’t get it. Some children with severe egg allergies shouldn’t get it, but many can — check with your doctor. The nasal spray is only recommended for healthy people ages 2 to 49, who aren’t pregnant and don’t have close contact with someone with serious problems with their immune systems — but most people who can’t get the spray can get the shot.
It’s important for everyone who can to get something — because it’s not just about you.
I can’t remember why I didn’t get the flu shot the year I got the flu, many years ago. I was busy when it was offered, and then I didn’t get around to it, although I kept meaning to. I got a miserable case of the flu, but the bigger problem was that I gave it to everyone around me. My youngest child at the time had a fever for 10 days. My sister came to visit, and ended up in an emergency room a few days later — as did her husband a few days after that. It took quite a while before we were all well. I’ve never missed a shot since.
And the thing was, we were lucky. All of us were basically healthy people, which helped. We were lucky enough not to get any complications of flu, which can happen even to healthy people. But we might not have been so lucky — and it scares me to think of all the people we might have infected, or did infect.
See, that’s the thing: every year, some people get really sick or even die from the flu. The people most at risk are the very young, the very old and people with underlying diseases like asthma or problems with their immune systems. Some of those people, like newborns, can’t get the flu shot — and even when they do, it doesn’t always work. When everyone around them gets a flu shot, it helps keep them safe. When someone around them gets the flu, it can put their life in danger.
That’s why it’s really important to get vaccinated. If you have questions or concerns about the flu shot, check out the flu website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and talk to your doctor. But please, if you are thinking about not getting it, remember:
It’s not just about you.
Claire McCarthy is a primary care physician and the medical director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Martha Eliot Health Center. She blogs at Thriving, the Boston Children’s Hospital blog, Vector, the Boston Children’s Hospital science and clinical innovation blog.