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Harvard Health Blog
Kids and flu shots: Two common myths
- By Claire McCarthy, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing
As a pediatrician, I am really passionate about the flu shot. Influenza can be a nasty illness; every year, thousands of people are hospitalized with influenza and its complications, and some of those people die. The flu shot can protect my patients and their families, and I enthusiastically recommend it to all of them.
And yet many of them refuse, despite my best efforts. What is particularly frustrating is that many of them refuse because of misunderstandings about the flu shot. There is all sorts of misinformation out there, but here are the two most common myths:
1. The flu shot can make you sick. This is the one I hear most of all. Now, as with any medical treatment, it’s true that the flu shot can have side effects. Very often, people will have some soreness for a couple of days where they got the shot, and some people may feel a bit sick for a couple of days, and some may have a slight fever. These side effects aren’t serious and go away by themselves; more serious side effects are extremely rare.
The flu shot, however, cannot give you the flu. The vaccine itself is made from components of the flu; that’s how it works, by helping your body make antibodies that can fight the flu if you get exposed. But those components are either dead (in the case of the shot) or extremely weak (in the case of the nasal spray version) and cannot give you influenza. To be extra safe, we recommend the shot instead of the nasal spray for people with very weakened defenses and those who take care of them. But it’s really only the ones with very weakened defenses, like people on chemotherapy for cancer, that are affected by this recommendation — and it is more of a precaution than anything else.
It’s important to remember that we give the flu shot during the flu season — and that it can take a couple of weeks to take effect. Therefore, it’s possible to get the flu shot but catch the flu before the shot has a chance to work. The flu shot also doesn’t give 100% protection, and there are plenty of other viruses around that cause illnesses similar to the flu, so it’s always possible to get sick even if you get the flu shot. But it’s not the flu shot that makes you sick!
2. Healthy people don’t need the flu shot. I hear this a lot, too. “My child never gets sick.” “We are a healthy family, we don’t need that.” “I’m not worried about getting the flu, we will be fine.” Well, besides the fact that luck only lasts so long and healthy people can get very sick with the flu too, there’s another important point: it’s not just about you. You and your family might weather the flu just fine, but you could easily pass it to others around you — like your friend’s newborn, your grandmother, the child at school on chemotherapy — for whom the flu is extremely dangerous. Vaccination doesn’t just protect you; it protects everyone around you. By getting the flu shot, you can literally save lives.
If you have questions about the flu or flu vaccine, talk to your doctor or visit www.flu.gov. Make your decision based on facts — not myths.
About the Author
Claire McCarthy, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing
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No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
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