Are Flu Shots Worth It?

Influenza, the flu, is a viral respiratory infection that attacks the lungs, nose and throat. The flu is similar to the common cold in this regard, but influenza symptoms are different and more severe. Fever, headache, severe aches and pains, and chest discomfort are symptoms that frequently manifest with an influenza infection, and yet are rare for sufferers of the common cold. The flu also weakens the immune system much more significantly than cold viruses do, leaving patients vulnerable to other serious infections.

Anyone can catch the flu, but some demographics are more susceptible than others, namely the elderly, the very young, and those with compromised immune systems. Health care workers and nursing home caregivers are also at elevated risk for contracting the flu. The CDC recommends that all high-risk individuals receive a flu vaccine every year.

The flu vaccine comes in two forms: an injection (shot) and a nasal spray. Both forms contain 3-4 different strains of the virus and vary every flu season, as the virus evolves over time. The medical community collects and analyses information as to which strains will be the most prevalent and deadly for each given season, and then creates a vaccine in kind. The traditional flu shot contains dead or inactivated virus strains, while the nasal spray is called the “live” attenuated influenza vaccine (LAIV). Both vaccines trigger the body’s immune system response to produce antibodies to various strains, which then allows it to “remember” the virus and produce more antibodies down the line if and when an infection occurs.

But how effective is the vaccine? That’s a matter of some debate. Scientists are constantly publishing new studies. Recently, the CDC has endorsed the nasal spray as the preferred method of vaccination for children aged 2 to 8, though that mandate has its critics. There is no official method recommendation for children older than 8. It is difficult to test the efficacy of the flu vaccine, as the viruses change every year. In reality, deciding which viruses to include in the annual vaccine is little more than a educated guessing game. It’s always possible that the included strains aren’t as widespread as predicted, while another version might become a dominant threat.

The flu vaccine may also pose health risks, apart from the mild flu-like symptoms that could come after administration. One in every million children vaccinated will develop an immune condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome. Severe allergic reactions may also occur, although patients can take steps prior to administration to mitigate these risks.

Based on the above, it may seem like a good idea to skip the flu vaccine. However, many argue that the benefits far outweigh the potential side effects. For example, if every one of the estimated 75 million children in the US received vaccinations, only about 225 of them would suffer any kind of negative consequence. On the other hand, 20,000 children are hospitalized with complications from the flu each year. Adults are no better off skipping the vaccine. Older adults in particular may contract pneumonia, meningitis, acute bronchitis, acute kidney failure, sepsis, or myocarditis, not to mention the traditional unpleasant flu symptoms. The medical community at large professes a fervent belief in influenza vaccinations, and there is a large body of research to validate that stance. Although everyone is entitled to their opinion, the negligible risks vs. the staggering potential rewards break down to basic math and a real no-brainer: flu shots are worth it.

Sources:

National Center for Biotechnology Information
National Center for Biotechnology Information
The Lancet: Infectious Diseases
U.S. Center for Disease Control
U.S. Center for Disease Control
How Stuff Works
Scientific American
Slate

About the Author
Iris Stone began her working as a freelance writer and researcher in 2011. Her business soon took off and she now owns and operates a writing and editing firm that works with clients all across the country. Despite the time it takes to run a business she still does much of the writing herself, and her work has included a variety of content related to education, medicine, healthcare careers, and science. Her interests actually span far beyond writing, and she is currently studying to be a physicist! Check out her Google+ Profile.

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