The Flu Shot - What You Need To Know

by Jane Ashley

There seems to be an anti-vaccination movement afoot in our country. We’ve seen the results with a severe outbreak of measles this year.
Rumors, myths and untruths run rampant every fall about the safety and efficacy of the flu vaccine. The CDC takes disease prevention seriously — preventing major flu outbreaks is a high priority. What are some of the myths

One Little Stick

Can the flu shot give you the flu? No. Flu shots do not contain live flu viruses.

It’s better to get the flu than get the flu shot. Influenza is a serious illness, especially for babies, children, adults with chronic diseases (COPD, heart disease, diabetes, asthma) and for cancer patients and cancer survivors, who may be immune compromised from their treatments.

I don’t really need to get a flu shot every year. Immunity from Influenza shot declines with time. The flu vaccine is formulated for the anticipated strains of flu expected in the upcoming flu season. It’s best and safest to have an annual flu vaccine to obtain the maximum protection against the flu.

Flu vaccines make you sick. Some people experience mild reactions, including soreness at the vaccination site. A few people (about 1-2 percent) might experience a headache, fever or muscle soreness for a couple of days. The nasal spray flu vaccine is more likely to cause mild reactions than the shot.

Flu shots are dangerous. Rarely, a person experiences an allergic reaction to the flu shot. These reactions occur within minutes to several hours after the shot. If a person experiences an allergic reaction, they should go to the nearest ER where effective treatments are available.

It’s better to wait until later in the flu season to get the flu shot. The flu season usually begins in October and lasts through May. Flu shots provide 6-to-8 months of flu protection. Ideally, you should get your flu shot before the end of October…no later than mid-November. 

Flu Facts

I’m healthy so there is no need for me to get a flu shot. Even healthy people can get the flu. Preventing widespread outbreaks of the flu helps protect our entire community, including infants too young to vaccinate and people who can’t have the flu vaccine because of a compromised immune system.

The flu shot doesn’t work. The flu vaccine is formulated each year to protect against the strains of flu that researchers believe will be most active. But other strains of flu are always present, and some people may get a different strain of the flu. Other people may become ill with “flu-like” illnesses like the cold or a rhinovirus.

All of these myths and misconceptions are part of the anti-vaccination movement that we are currently seeing in the United States.

Why it’s important for cancer patients and cancer survivors to get the flu shot

1. The primary reason that it is so crucial for us as cancer patients in active treatment and as cancer survivors is that our treatments weaken our immune system making us more likely to develop the flu if we are exposed to the flu virus.

2. Secondly, cancer patients and survivors are more likely to develop secondary problems if they get the flu. These problems include bronchitis, dehydration, ear infections and sinus infections. Potentially serious consequences of the flu include inflammation of the brain, heart or muscles, pneumonia and sepsis.

3. A third reason to get the flu shot during active treatment is that if you get the flu, it might delay your treatments.

Is it safe for all cancer patients to get the flu vaccine?

The flu vaccine is safe for almost all cancer patients. Ask your oncologist before you get the flu vaccine.

Fake News

The timing may be critical for a flu shot to be effective. If you’re on strong chemotherapy or have a very weak immune system (such as right after a stem cell transplant), you might not respond as well to the flu shot and develop the immunity that you need.

A new study shows that there is no increase in adverse reactions in patients receiving immune checkpoint inhibitors (including nivolumab, pembrolizumab, or ipilimumab). Once again, however, patients on any immunotherapy treatment should consult their oncologist before taking the flu vaccine.

Cancer patients should always get the flu shot which contains dead viruses. Do not get the nasal spray vaccine that contains live viruses.

Precautions to Take

Even when we get the flu shot, we still need to take precautions against other contagious diseases including colds and other respiratory illnesses not prevented by flu vaccination.
• Avoid being around sick people.
• Wear a mask if you must be around others who are sick.
• Wash your hands with soap and water. Keep a hand sanitizer in your car. 

Wear A Mask

Patients about to begin treatment should also talk to their oncologist about the pneumococcal vaccines. There are two types of pneumonia vaccines — most patients should have them before beginning treatment when possible.

The Bottom Line …
Don’t listen to rumors, drama queens or anecdotal accounts about flu shots. They aren’t true. Influenza is dangerous and affects between 5 and 20 percent of people annually, depending on whether it’s an active flu season or not. Don’t be a statistic — get your flu shot.

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