October 10, 2020

Got My Flu Shot

English: WASHINGTON (Sept. 27, 2011) Chief of ...
WASHINGTON (Sept. 27, 2011) Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Jonathan Greenert receives his annual flu vaccine at the Pentagon. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Shannon E. Renfroe/Released) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I got my yearly flu shot this week. It seems to get a little earlier each year, but early October seemed to be as good a time as any. I am well aware that there is considerable skepticism about the flu vaccine (and vaccines in general). I have certainly heard some of the objections after writing something here about the flu vaccine previously. Some do not believe it is effective and/or that it does more harm than good. So why did I get the shot again this year like I have the past several years?

First, my doctor recommends it. He said that the flu vaccine is recommended for people of my age and with my medical history. That seems like a valid reason to at least consider it. Second, the cost of the vaccine is completely covered under my health insurance. Since I don't have to pay anything for it or go out of my way to find it, cost is not a deterrent. Third, I have had the flu before and did not particularly enjoy the experience. I'd prefer not to have it again or at least to have a milder case of it if I have to do so. Fourth, my job brings me in contact with more sick people than I can count. Pretty much any contagious ailment anybody comes down with sweeps across a university campus in no time. Finally, I'd like to stay as healthy as possible so as not to place additional strain on a healthcare system that is already struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic and so I don't pass the flu to anybody I come in contact with who could already be compromised with other illnesses.

But the flu vaccine might not work! That's true. I might get sick anyway. There have been years when the available vaccine was not terribly effective. But getting a flu shot is a way of improving my odds at no real cost. If past years are any indication, I will get sick less often and less severely than those around me who skip the vaccine.

But what about the side effects? I've learned to expect two side effects from getting a flu shot, as I experience them predictably with nearly every shot. The spot in my arm where the shot was delivered will swell up and be painful to the touch for 24-72 hours. It sometimes feels like I was punched hard in the shoulder, and it can be painful enough to wake me if I roll over onto that side while sleeping. I'll may also feel a bit run down for about 48 hours after receiving the shot, almost as if I'm coming down with something. That's it. And unexpectedly, I didn't experience either of these side effects this year. My shoulder was only sore for about 12 hours and barely painful enough to notice.

I have fairly realistic expectations for the vaccine. I have had years where I got the shot and still got the flu, so I realize it is never going to be completely effective. I've also had years where I skipped the shot for various reasons (e.g., my shitty health insurance did not used to cover it), and I managed to get through some of them without getting the flu. But on balance, I'm inclined to think it is worth it for me to get the shot. Given the choice, I'll usually throw my lot in with science.

For more information about the anti-vaccine arguments and the science behind the influenza vaccine, see this post from Debunking Denialism.

This is an updated version of a post from 2013.