Flu Shot

Get the flu vaccine, reduce your risk of death

John Ross, MD, FIDSA

Contributing Editor

Last year’s flu vaccine gave a lackluster performance — it prevented the flu in less than a quarter of the people who got immunized. Flu vaccines are created to protect against the three or four viruses most likely to cause the flu in a given season. Some years, the predictions are better than others. Scientists are now working on a universal flu vaccine that may make the guesswork unnecessary. And there are improved vaccines available for people with egg allergies, which would otherwise prohibit them from getting standard flu shots. The flu vaccine may be imperfect, but it’s still worth getting. It does lower your chances of getting the flu, and it reduces the risk for heart attack, stroke, and death as well.

Two bad reasons for not getting a flu shot

Nancy Ferrari

Senior editor, Harvard Health

Each year, only 40% of U.S. adults get vaccinated against the flu, even though the vaccine is available at doctors’ offices, pharmacies, workplaces, and other venues. Two common reasons people give for avoiding the flu shot are 1) it will give me the flu and 2) it won’t work. Neither are accurate. The virus in a flu shot or nose spray has been killed or made unable to replicate in the human lung. Because the most common strains of flu virus changes from year to year, experts have to predict a year in advance which ones will predominate. Some years the guesses are good and the vaccines are quite effective. Other years the guesses aren’t so good and the vaccines aren’t as protective as they could be. The flu vaccine may be imperfect, but it’s still worth getting. Who should be vaccinated? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that everyone over the age of 6 months get vaccinated against the flu every year.

Flu shot linked to lower heart attack, stroke risk

Getting the flu shot may do more than protect against the flu and its lingering aftermath. It also lowers a person’s odds of a having heart attack, stroke, heart failure, or other major cardiac event—including death—by about a third over the following year. What’s the connection between flu and cardiovascular problems? The body mounts an impressive immune response against the flu. That causes a lot of inflammation, which destabilizes cholesterol-filled plaque inside blood vessels. Plaque rupture can cause a heart attack or stroke. Experts recommend a flu shot for everyone six months of age and older. It is especially important for those who face the highest risk of complications: young children; adults over age 50; those of all ages with serious health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, asthma or other lung disease, liver or kidney disease, or diabetes; and those who care for young children or other individuals at high risk of flu complications.