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Flu Shot Facts & Side Effects (Updated for 2014-2015)

flu shot
Seasonal flu shots are recommended for everyone ages 6 months and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Credit: AZP Worldwide | Shutterstock

The seasonal flu shot is a yearly vaccine administered to protect against the flu, or influenza.

In the United States, flu shots are recommended for everyone ages 6 months and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The flu can be a very serious illness, especially in young children, adults ages 65 and over, those with underlying health conditions, and pregnant women.

The flu shot is the best way to protect yourself and family from the flu, the CDC says.

Strains of the flu virus are constantly changing, so a new flu vaccine& is made each year. Scientists make the vaccine before flu season starts by predicting which flu strains are likely to be the most common during the upcoming season.

"Since the flu virus frequently drifts in its genetic composition, you have to reformate the vaccine, and this one of the reason that people have to [get a flu shot] on an annual basis," said Dr. William Schaffner, a preventive medicine and infectious disease expert at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

What kinds of flu shots are there?

Flu shots protect against three or four strains of flu virus. Trivalent flu vaccines protect against two influenza A strains, H1N1 and H3N2, and one influenza B strain. Quadrivalent flu vaccines — offered for the first time in the 2013-2014 flu season — protect against the same strains as the trivalent vaccine, as well as an extra influenza B virus.

In addition to the standard dose flu vaccine given with a needle, flu shots are available in several different forms, including an egg-free version for people ages 18 to 49, a high-dose version for those ages 65 and older, a small-needle version for people ages 18 to 64, and a nasal spray, which is approved for healthy people ages 2 to 49. 

Flu vaccines for the 2014 to 2015 season 

During the 2014 to 2015 flu season, it's projected that 150 million doses of flu vaccine will be available, of which 77 million will be the quadrivalent  type (the rest are trivalent), the CDC says. Flu shots are available now across the country.

In August 2014, health officials said that the nasal spray is the preferred vaccine for children ages 2 to 8, because this vaccine has been shown to work particularly well in this age group. Studies show that in this age group, the nasal spray prevented 50 percent more flu cases than the flu shot, according to the CDC. However, if the nasal spray is not immediately available, parents should not delay vaccination, they should have their children get the flu shot instead, the CDC says.

When should you get a flu shot?

Exactly when flu season starts and ends is unpredictable, so health officials recommend that people get their flu shot in early fall, preferably before October, the CDC says. Flu activity typically peaks in January or February.

"We'd like to get as many people protected against influenza before influenza becomes active in communities across the country," Schaffner said.

Most flu vaccine is given before Thanksgiving, Schaffner said, but people can still get their shot throughout the winter months. The 2014-2015 flu shot does not expire until June, but Schaffner said that he would consider it "too late" to get a flu vaccine after March, unless a person is traveling to the Southern Hemisphere (where their flu season will be starting).

After vaccination, it takes a person about two weeks to build up immunity against the flu.

People can visit the CDC's HealthMap Vaccine Finder to find flu shot locations, although they should call the location ahead of time to see if they have the vaccine in stock.

How effective is the flu vaccine?

The effectiveness of the seasonal flu vaccine depends upon several factors, including how well the flu strains in the vaccine match the strains in circulation. Some studies show that when strains in the vaccine are a good match with the ones that are circulating, vaccinated individuals are 60 percent less likely to catch the flu than people who aren't vaccinated, according to the CDC.

Flu vaccine effectiveness can also vary depending on the person being vaccinated — the vaccine tends to work best in healthy adults and older children, and less well in older adults.

For instance, a 2013 study from the CDC found that that year's flu vaccine was not very effective in adults ages 65 and over: Older people who got the vaccine were just as likely to visit the doctor for flu symptoms as those who did not get the vaccine.

But other studies suggest that individuals who do get sick develop less serve symptoms if they are vaccinated. A 2013 study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases found that people who got the flu shot were less likely to be hospitalized with the flu.

There are some studies that suggest the high dose flu vaccine provides better protection in older adults. The high dose flu vaccine contains four times the dose of the standard vaccine, Schaffner said. A 2014 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the high dose vaccine provides 24 percent more protection against flu than the standard dose, Schaffner said.

Are flu vaccines safe for pregnant women?

Yes. Studies show flu vaccines are safe for women in any stage of pregnancy, the CDC says.

There are several reasons why it's important for pregnant women to get a flu shot, Schaffner said.

"Pregnant women, when they get influenza, have a tendency to get more severe disease," and are at increased risk for complications and hospitalization from the disease, Schaffner said.

In addition, flu vaccination in pregnancy helps to protect the baby against flu during the first six months of life, when the baby is too young to receive a flu shot, Schaffner said. The mother "passes that protection on to her newborn baby," Schaffner said.

What are the side effects?

According to the CDC, mild side effects from the flu shot include soreness, redness or swelling at the injection site, low-grade fever, and aches. Only about 1 percent to 2 percent of people who get a flu shot will have fever as a side effect, Schaffner said.

Rare but serious side effects can occur, including allergic reactions. Symptoms of serious side effects include difficulty breathing, swelling around the eyes or lips, hives, racing heart, dizziness and high fever. If you experience serious side effects, you should seek medical care immediately, the CDC says.

For children, side effects from the flu nasal spray can include runny nose, wheezing, headache, vomiting, muscle aches and fever. For adults, side effects include runny nose, headache, sore throat and cough. These side effects last a short time compared to the actual flu illness, the CDC says.

Can you get the flu from the flu shot?

"It’s a myth that you can get flu from the flu vaccine," Schaffner said.

The viruses in the flu shot are killed, so people cannot get the flu from a flu vaccine. However, because it takes about two weeks for people to build up immunity after they get the flu vaccine, some people may catch the flu shortly after their vaccinated, if they are exposed to the flu during this time period.

Some people may also mistakenly attribute symptoms of a cold to the vaccine, Schaffner said.

The nasal spray vaccine contains a "live attenuated" flu virus, but the virus is weakened so that it cannot cause the flu. The viruses in the nasal spray can't replicate in the warm temperatures of the lungs and other parts in the body. However, because temperatures in the nose are colder, the virus causes a small infection in the nose. This infection does not cause symptoms in most people, but in some people, it causes symptoms such as runny nose and sore throat, Schaffner said.

This local infection will prompt the body to make antibodies against the flu virus, Schaffner said. "That provides better protection against the real flu, which is of course, is a virus that can make you seriously ill," Schaffner said.

Who should not get a flu vaccine?

Children younger than 6 months cannot get a flu shot. Those who've had a severe allergic reaction to a flu vaccine in the past should generally not be vaccinated, the CDC says.

You should not get the flu vaccine if you have a high fever (You should wait until the fever is gone.)

However, if you have minor illness, like a mild cold or a headache, you can still get a flu shot, Schaffner said. "The vaccine does perfectly well in those folks."

This article is for informational purposes only, and is not meant to offer medical advice. 

Follow Rachael Rettner @RachaelRettner. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+.

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Rachael Rettner, MyHealthNewsDaily Staff Writer

Rachael Rettner

Rachael has been with Live Science since 2010. She has a masters degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a Bachelor of Science in molecular biology and a Master of Science in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Follow Rachael on Twitter and Google+.
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