When Lisa Whittaker encourages patients to get the flu shot each fall, it’s not just her job talking.
The physician assistant at the UCHealth Family Medicine in Fort Collins and her 10-year-old son actually contracted influenza during a national vaccine shortage.
“It was horrible,” she said. “You feel sick very suddenly – fever, chest pain, cough, body aches like you’ve never felt before. You’re in bed for five days. That’s time away from work and school. Not too many people want to spend their vacation days recovering from the flu.”
And the flu still kills thousands of people in the U.S. every year, Whittaker said.
Despite the risk, many people still have doubts about getting the flu vaccine – often based on mistruths – that UCHealth experts can address:
Argument: The flu vaccine has given me the flu.
Response: No, it hasn’t, according to Paul J. Poduska, infection prevention and control coordinator for Poudre Valley Hospital.
“That’s an old myth,” he said. “If you get the vaccine and then within two days get influenza, I’m sorry, but you were already incubating influenza when you got the vaccine.”
It takes the body 10 days to develop the antibodies to the vaccine, Poduska said.
“We give the flu vaccine in the respiratory disease season, so there may be other viruses they’re still vulnerable to and contract,” Whittaker said.
Dr. Mark Berntsen, a physician at UCHealth Internal Medicine in Greeley, said some people may suffer from “some side effects” of the vaccine and confuse it with having the flu.
But even if someone contracts the flu despite getting the vaccine, the severity of the illness is not as bad as it would have been without the vaccine, he said.
A: I can’t get the vaccine because I am allergic to eggs, gluten, preservatives, etc.
R: People who have had a true allergic reaction to the flu vaccine should never get it again, Berntsen said. However, he assures people with egg allergies that an egg-free vaccine version is available and that neither vaccine contains wheat protein.
Poduska notes that someone who has a history of Guillain-Barré Syndrome shouldn’t get the influenza vaccine within six weeks of another vaccine.
Those allergic to or concerned about the mercury-based preservative thimerosal in multidose vials of the vaccine can request a single-dose of the vaccine, Whittaker said.
But, she added, “The most recent research does not support the argument that (thimerosal) is harmful or linked to autism.”
A: I don’t have time to get the flu vaccine.
R: The availability of the vaccine at virtually any pharmacy makes the argument of time constraints and inconvenience moot, Whittaker said.
“Some employers even bring the vaccine to the work site,” she said. “I think that’s less of a barrier now than it has been in the past because there are so many places you can get it.”
A: I’ve never gotten the flu, so why should I get vaccinated?
R: “There’s a first time for everything,” Whittaker said. “If you become sick during the flu season and you’re not protected, you’re more vulnerable to the flu. There are no guarantees that just because you’ve been healthy, you’re always going to be healthy.”
Likewise, people who get the flu vaccine are strengthening their immune systems every time they do so, Berntsen said.
“If you have never had the vaccine before, the amount of antibodies built up will not be as much as people who have them every year,” he said. “If you are re-exposed to a virus you were vaccinated against before, your body builds antibodies much quicker.”