4 Flu Shot Myths Debunked
By Scott Rosenfield
2013 is already shaping up to be the nastiest year for the flu in at least a decade: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 22,048 flu cases have been reported in the last 3 months, compared to only 849 cases during the same time period last year. Hospitals in cities like Chicago and Boston are overwhelmed, with the latter declaring a public health emergency.
To put it bluntly, this year’s influenza strain isn’t screwing around. So why aren’t more people rushing out to get vaccinated? Blame the cost—and your weird brain: The more expensive you think the flu shot is, the more likely you are to underestimate your risk of catching the flu, according to new research from Tulane University.
Researchers told 40 people that the latest flu shot would cost $25, gave 40 others a price of $125, and told both groups that insurance would cover all of their expenses. Then, the researchers asked the participants to estimate their risk of coming down with the flu. The results: Those who thought they’d be paying $125 for the shot underestimated their risk of catching the illness.
If that sounds a little silly, here’s what’s up: “When a vaccine is inexpensive, you think that people must want you to get it,” because everyone’s at high risk for the disease and companies are lowering its price to protect you, says study author Janet Schwartz, Ph.D., a marketing professor at Tulane. But because people have a hard time imagining that anyone would make a vaccine for a common illness costly, they in turn underestimate their chances of falling sick, Schwartz says.
The problem is, your risk of contracting the flu stays the same—regardless of how much the shot costs, she says. The good news: There’s still time to get this year’s flu shot, and it’s effective against the strains that are currently circulating, says Robert Couch, M.D., of the department of molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine. But if you’re resisting the shot because of how much you think it costs or other false impressions, now’s the time to get the facts straight.
Myth #1: The flu shot causes the flu.
Relax, the shot won’t give you the virus, since it’s filled with dead material that can’t replicate in your body and cause an infection, Dr. Couch says. If you get sick after your shot, it’s from a different bug, or you’re just having a mild reaction to the injection, he says. For people who get nasal spray vaccinations, the mist does use a live virus, but it’s designed to produce a very mild infection—not anything near full-blown full symptoms, Dr. Couch says.
Myth #2: The shot has nasty side effects.
While some people experience a bit of aching in their arm, it’s usually only for a day or two, says Dr. Couch. Plus, a recent review in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reported that very few people experience adverse effects after getting the vaccine. As for the nasal spray, you might experience a mild runny nose or sore throat from the mist, but anything more is rare, he says.
Myth #3: You don’t need to get it every year.
You really should. “You need the shot every year if you want to be best protected,” Dr. Couch says. The virus that causes the flu mutates every year, and the vaccine is most effective at stopping the flu when it closely matches the bug. Scientists meet each year to decide which strains to target. The effect of last year’s vaccination decreases with each passing month, says Dr. Couch.
Myth #4: The flu shot doesn’t work.
Dr. Couch admits that this year’s shot is “a good vaccine, not great.” Its effectiveness varies year to year—depending on how good a job the scientists did predicting the strains most likely to hit—but often averages out to around 70 to 90 percent protection, he says. But think of it this way: Even when the scientists guess wrong, the shot still provides some protection against the illness, Dr. Couch says.
So what’s the best and cheapest way to get the flu shot? Most insurance plans cover all but $10 to $15 of the cost, and if you have a new health insurance plan that began on or after September 23, 2010, the Affordable Care Act has you covered at no out of pocket cost (when you get the shot from your network provider), according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Otherwise, before you pay up, check with your doctor and employer. Many companies offer free flu shots to their employees, and some cities’ health departments (including Boston and Chicago) are offering free shots to their residents this year.
Check ou the BC Flu Clinic Locator for locations where you can get your flu shot