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Do you really need a flu shot? We asked the experts

Flu shot and thermometer with medicine
Credits: Iuliia Mikhalitskaia/Getty Images; Novegor/Twenty20; Composite by Grateful

Last winter, 49 million Americans came down with the flu. That was up more than 60% from the previous year, when 30 million were afflicted. While most people are able to rest and recover, 2% were hospitalized last year, and 79,000 died of the disease. With questions around the effectiveness of the flu vaccination, we took a look into the vaccine, its efficacy, and if it’s actually worth getting.

The CDC advises nearly everyone over the age of 6 months to get vaccinated against the flu, except in rare cases of allergies or specific health histories. Interestingly, the World Health Organization in Europe‘s guidelines are narrower than the CDC’s.

They recommend the vaccine for “healthcare workers and people who are most at risk of developing serious complications,” including pregnant women, the elderly, healthcare workers, children, people over 6 months old who have chronic illnesses, and those working with the elderly and disabled.

How effective is the flu shot?

The efficacy of the shot varies drastically from year to year, ranging from 10% to 60%. It all depends on whether the vaccine ends up aligning with the strains of the virus that appear. Given last year’s incidence, you might wonder if the shot is really worthwhile.

In short: Most experts say it is.

According to Dr. Aditi Joshi, medical director at JeffConnect at Pennsylvania’s Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and assistant professor of the hospital’s Department of Emergency Medicine, the flu shot saves lives. She urges everyone to get the vaccine if they are able.

“I cannot stress enough how virulent, contagious and potentially devastating the flu can be,” she says, based on her experience as an emergency medicine physician.

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In addition to the vaccine’s potentially life-saving benefits, she shared a handful of other upsides: “The vaccine can decrease the length of having the flu, decrease the risk of complications and the severity of the flu, and decreases the risk of spreading it to others.”

In addition to the efficacy of the shot itself, each person’s immune system varies in its response to it.

“Vaccines depend on the body’s immune system to build a protective response to the pieces of virus they inject into the muscle or blood. If the immune system is weak or riddled with other challenges, it cannot focus on the flu virus. Either the incompetent system does not create a good protective response, or the system makes a dysfunctional response that creates a chaotic mess in the body.

“Functionally, the person is neither protected, nor is the immune system content,” says Dr. Bhaswati Bhattacharya, clinical assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. “Increasingly, this is also happening with people who have autoimmune disorders, recent episodes of infectious disease, hypersensitive immunity, cancers, and immunodeficiency.”

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What about side effects from the influenza vaccination?

Joshi explains that any side effects you might experience are far less severe than acquiring the flu itself.

“There are some side effects to the vaccine such as soreness to the vaccine site. You may get some body aches and low-grade fever. There is a potential to be allergic if you’ve never had the flu shot prior, but it’s rare,” she explained.

She also advises that you cannot get the flu from receiving the flu shot. “The flu is inactivated in the flu shot, so you cannot get the flu from it. The side effects of body aches and low-grade fever may make you feel like it’s a mild case, but it’s not actually the flu.”

3D graphical representation of the biology and structure of a generic influenza virus
3D graphical representation of the biology and structure of a generic influenza virus – Image credit: CDC

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The holistic opinion on the flu vaccine

Holistic health practitioners view the flu vaccination less favorably, but several of the practitioners we spoke to were unwilling to go on the record saying so.

One cited uncertainty regarding the long-term effects of a yearly shot. “There is no one-size-fits-all answer,” she says. “The decision should be made in discussion with [the person’s] clinical team.”

Another practitioner stated that, while it isn’t highly effective and he wouldn’t recommend it, he also is not against it.

There are also concerns about additives to vaccinations. According to the CDC, a variety of stabilizers, preservatives, and other additives, such as formaldehyde, are added to vaccines to keep them shelf-stable and prevent the spread of toxins and contamination during manufacturing.”

“Vaccines may cause adverse reactions because they contain dangerous chemicals and preservatives. Although it’s rare, they also cause severe allergic reactions in some cases,” says Nashville-based Josh Axe, DC, DNM, CNS, founder of Ancient Nutrition and DrAxe.com.

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The bottom line: Flu prevention requires multiple strategies

Whether you choose to opt in to the vaccination or decide against it, it’s always in your best interest to optimize your health and immune system to avoid the flu, the common cold and other winter viruses and infections. Reducing your sugar intake and eating a range of fruits and vegetables while minimizing processed foods will help keep your immune system strong.

“It’s important to use healing foods to build up your immune system. This can be done with herbs and supplements like vitamin C-rich foods, chicken bone broth, astragalus, ginger and probiotics,” says Axe.

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Exercise and getting a full night’s sleep every night are important, too. Herbal supplements such as elderberry syrup and other immune-boosting herbs, along with functional mushrooms such as reishi and chaga, can help your system avoid disease this winter season.

Ultimately, the choice to get a flu vaccination is yours, based on your own research and in conversation with your medical team. Given the lack of certainty around each year’s vaccination efficacy, it’s best to optimize your health and immune system during flu season regardless of whether you are immunized, and to take the proper precautions to avoid the spread of germs.

Important: If you begin experiencing symptoms of the flu, seek treatment immediately to avoid spreading the illness, and to ensure the quickest, most comfortable recovery possible.

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