The flu shot isn’t always a top priority. Many people don’t consider themselves high risk, or they may not be sure the flu shot really works. Others may be worried they’ll catch the flu from the shot itself.
But this logic couldn’t be more wrong. Influenza can cause serious complications, hospitalization and even death. Depending on the severity of the flu season, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that between 140,000 and 810,000 people in the U.S. are hospitalized with the flu each year and between 12,000 and 61,000 die.
The reality is that many groups of people are at higher risk from the flu, and the flu shot offers significant health benefits to everyone, not just high-risk people. And no, you can’t catch the flu from the flu shot. Here’s what you need to know about the seasonal flu and why the annual flu vaccine is so important.
Who’s at risk
It’s important to know that anyone can experience serious complications from the flu, even people who aren’t considered to be high risk. And there are many people who have elevated risk of serious complications, hospitalization and even death if they get the flu.
Older people are at increased risk. The CDC estimates that people 65 and older make up at least 70% of flu-related deaths and at least 50% of flu-related hospitalizations. However, age isn’t the only factor. According to the CDC, the following groups are also at higher risk:
- Pregnant women.
- Young children (those under age 5, and especially those under age 2).
- Children with neurological conditions.
- People who have had a stroke.
- People with asthma, heart disease, diabetes, cancer or HIV/AIDS.
How the flu shot helps
You may have heard that the flu shot is not 100% effective. This is not a myth. The effectiveness of the flu shot varies from year to year because researchers have to make an educated guess about which strains of flu will be circulating the following season. They need to predict this in advance so they have time to make the flu shots. Some years, the match between the vaccine and the variants of the flu virus for the season match perfectly. Other years, there may be a strain in circulation that wasn’t in the vaccine.
The CDC estimates that when there’s a good match between circulating flu viruses and the vaccine, the shot will reduce your chance of catching the flu by 40% to 60%. However, that’s not the only benefit. When people who are vaccinated do get sick with the flu, they often get a milder case than people who have not been vaccinated and they are much less likely to suffer from serious flu complications.
Benefits to adults
The CDC reports that, when people are hospitalized with the flu, those who have not received the flu vaccine that year are two to five times more likely to die.
The differences the CDC reports for people based on vaccination status are not just in death rates. Vaccinated adults ages 18 to 49 years of age and adults 65 years of age and older hospitalized with the flu are 37% less likely to be admitted to the ICU. Of those who are admitted to the ICU with a flu-like illness, adults ages 50 and older who have had their annual flu vaccine have shorter average stays than those who have not been vaccinated.
Benefits to pregnant women and infants
Pregnant women who get the flu shot reduce their risk of being hospitalized with flu complications by an average of 40%, the CDC reports. Getting the flu vaccine while pregnant also helps protect babies from the flu before they’re old enough to get the flu shot themselves, when they are six months old. That’s because the mother passes along to her baby the flu antibodies she builds in response to the flu shot.
Benefits to children
A 2017 study conducted by the CDC found that the flu vaccination reduced the risk of flu-associated death by 51% among children with underlying high-risk medical conditions and by nearly 65% among healthy children.
Even if you don’t fall into a high-risk group, it’s likely a family member, friend or colleague does. Sometimes you may not even know who in your circle is at higher risk. Plus, while people are most infectious during the early days of the flu, they can also be contagious one to seven days before getting sick. Simple everyday activities done right before you get sick, such as going to work, visiting a friend or having a family member over for dinner, can potentially spread the disease to them. By getting vaccinated, you not only save yourself from a week or more of misery, you also prevent yourself from unknowingly infecting and perhaps seriously sickening those around you.