“I don’t like needles,” my patient said.
“Good, 'cause if you did, we would have other problems,” I replied.
So, why should she get an influenza vaccine anyway? I think that one of the reasons people hesitate is because they do not understand influenza. Much of what we call “flu” is not really influenza. A person may vomit or have diarrhea for two to three days and call it a “stomach flu.”
This is not what the “flu shot” is meant to prevent. There are four classic symptoms of influenza: fever (usually 101.5 or more), headache, cough, and myalgias (muscle aches). Often these symptoms are so severe that getting out of bed to go the bathroom is a major effort and sometimes not possible.
Influenza symptoms can last around two weeks. People over the age of 65 are more likely to be severely affected and require hospitalization. About 8% of the US population gets influenza every year.1 Like almost all viral infections, the contagious period typically starts the day BEFORE symptoms occur. Influenza is most contagious in the first three to four days of the illness. The incubation period (or time from exposure to symptoms) is thought to be one to four days, usually two days.1
Because the influenza virus mutates rapidly, the influenza vaccine changes every year to what manufacturers think is going to be the most effective mixture. On average the vaccine is 40-60% effective at reducing the risk of a flu-like illness when the circulating viruses are well matched to the selected vaccine components.2 While that might not sound like a huge number, taken over the population of the United States in 2019-2020 the vaccine prevented an estimated 7.5 million influenza illnesses, 3.7 million influenza-associated medical visits, 105,000 influenza-associated hospitalizations, and 6,300 influenza-associated deaths. The vaccine has also been shown to decrease the severity of influenza for those who do get it.
A 2021 study showed that among adults hospitalized with flu, vaccinated patients had a 26% lower risk of intensive care unit (ICU) admission and a 31% lower risk of death from flu compared with those who were unvaccinated.3
What about kids? One 2022 study showed that flu vaccination reduced children’s risk of severe life-threatening influenza by 75%.4
The CDC believes that transmission of influenza by healthcare workers is a significant vector.5 This means that as a healthcare worker, if you don’t get influenza, you cannot transmit it to your patients. You also personally benefit by decreasing the likelihood that you will have to use your PTO for sick time. Not taking time off for illness nor spreading illness at the office helps your coworkers and overall workload.
I am glad you don’t like needles. Truth be told neither do I, but for most of us, the benefits of getting an influenza vaccine are compelling.