7 Myths and facts about the flu vaccine

Seasons are changing and with it the increased chance of a runny nose and chest infection. But some people believe that with a tiny prick you could avoid a trip to the doctor this season. However, there are many misconceptions around the flu and its vaccine. As with any medical procedure, seeking trusted sources and facts behind common assumptions and practices is important. Let’s see if you have all your flu-facts straight with these myths and truths.

Myth #1: Getting the flu vaccine gives you flu

No, it doesn’t.

“The injected flu vaccine that is given to adults contains killed (inactivated) flu viruses, so it cannot give you the flu. The inactivated viruses simply enable your body to develop the antibodies needed to ward off influenza. Your arm may feel a bit sore where you were injected. Some people develop a slight temperature and aching muscles for a couple of days afterwards, but other reactions are very rare,” says Discovery Health.

It’s possible though that you can catch the flu – or appear to – even if you get a flu shot. Dr Noluthando Nematswerani, head of the centre for clinical excellence at Discovery Health, offers three possible explanations:

  • You catch the flu during the two-week window period

It takes two weeks for your body to develop antibodies after you’ve had a flu shot. If you’re exposed to a flu virus shortly before or during this window period, you could still catch the flu. However, you won’t suffer for as long or as badly as you would have without the flu shot.

  • The season’s flu virus doesn’t match the vaccine

Sometimes the influenza viruses used for the vaccine don’t completely match the viruses circulating during that particular flu season. This could make your flu shot less effective, but it will still offer some protection.

  • You’re actually suffering from other illnesses

Many other health conditions (like the common cold) produce symptoms that appear similar to flu. So you may think you have the flu when you actually don’t.

Myth #2: Once you’ve had a flu vaccine, you’re protected for life

If only it were that easy. Unfortunately, the body’s immunity lessens over time, even within the year of the shot, and flu viruses are constantly adapting and changing. This means that last year’s vaccine will not be effective against this year’s flu. Which is why people are encouraged to get the flu injection every year.

Myth #3: Getting a flu shot when you’re pregnant may hurt your baby

“Getting a flu shot will help your baby. You should get the flu vaccine no matter what stage of pregnancy you are in. If you’re pregnant and catch the flu, you could become even more ill than usual, which could be very unhealthy for your baby. Having the flu vaccine can also protect your baby against the flu after they’re born, and during the early months of their life,” reports Discovery Health.

“Because babies haven’t had the time and exposure to develop strong immune systems, they are very prone to illness, so it’s important that moms equip them with all the protection they can get,” says dr Deepak Patel, principal clinical specialist at Discovery Vitality. “Moms are able to do this because their bodies develop the necessary flu antibodies. This is then shared with their babies through umbilical fluids and, after birth, through breastmilk.”

Myth #4: Vitamin C can prevent the flu

No, it can’t.

“Many people think that taking daily vitamin C supplements will keep them from getting the flu, but there is no evidence to conclusively prove this. Taking any single vitamin supplement may not do much good because the balance between all vitamins and minerals plays a big role in their efficacy,” says Terry Harris, a dietitian at Discovery Vitality.

“Vitamin C – not in large, isolated doses just once you feel sick, but absorbed daily as part of a healthy balanced diet – works together with other nutrients to strengthen your overall immune system. In this way, it contributes to making your body more resistant to illnesses like the flu,” adds Harris.

But, there are also some important facts that you should be aware of:

#Fact 1: Some people are more at risk of developing complications than others

“Some people’s immune systems are more vulnerable to disease, which makes them more at risk of developing dangerous complications associated with the flu,” states Discovery Health.

The following people need to be especially careful and should prioritise getting a flu shot:

  • Pregnant women, including mothers in the two-week period after delivery
  • Babies and infants under 2 years old
  • Elderly people over the age of 65 years
  • People with existing chronic diseases that affect their heart, lung, kidney or endocrine system – such as – diabetes, asthma, or diseases that affect your immune system
  • Morbidly obese people, that is, those with a Body Mass Index (BMI) equal or over 40, or others with a BMI≥35 who have obesity-related health conditions
  • People who are 18 years old or younger who receive chronic aspirin therapy

#Fact 2: You can be contagious before or after flu symptoms

Despite what you’ve been told, people with flu can pass the virus on to someone else before they even know that they’re sick, as well as while they’re sick.

“A person with flu may be contagious one day before symptoms appear, and for three to seven days after the onset of symptoms. Some people, especially young children and people with weakened immune systems, may be able to infect others during an even longer period,” Discovery Health finds. 

#Fact 3: Covering your mouth and good hand hygiene really can help prevent the spread of flu

While making sure to cover your mouth when sneezing is good etiquette, it may also prevent the spread of the flu.

“The flu virus is mainly spread through droplets formed when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of others close by. You can also catch flu by touching a surface or an object that has the flu virus on it, and then touching your mouth, eyes or nose,” adds Discovery Health.

To help prevent the spread of flu, infected people should:

1.Try to limit contact with other people

2.Cover the nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing, and throw away the used tissue in a bin.

3.Wash hands often with soap or use an alcohol-based hand rub, especially after coughing, sneezing, or blowing the nose.

4.It’s also helpful to clean and disinfect any surfaces that are commonly touched.

Dr Nematswerani concludes, “The most effective way to give your body extra power to fight off the flu or to protect yourself against its severe complications is to get a flu vaccine before the flu season starts.”

Flu vaccines are safe and proven to protect, so head to your nearest clinic, GP or pharmacy in time to protect yourself and your family this season.

*Apart from visiting your general practitioner, flu vaccines are most commonly available at trusted pharmacies.