Bottom Line
Flu shots: Myth or magic?

By Cara Reed
Special to Land Line


flu shots chart

You’ve survived a rough summer on the road that included a few unexpected yet costly truck repairs, high fuel costs and increased toll fees. Recently, you have been feeling run down and have a dry, nagging cough. You’re always sweating despite having the chills. You have a bad headache. A doctor diagnoses the flu. You are knocked down for seven days. You have lost quite a few loads and a week’s salary.

This all might have been prevented if you hadn’t passed by the flu shot clinic. But you remembered a story that someone once told you about their mechanic’s barber’s daughter’s husband’s cousin three times removed “getting the flu from the flu shot.”

Well, here’s the real story, according to the Centers for Disease Control and this nurse who cares about my brothers and sisters on 18 wheels.

Background on the bug

Influenza, aka the flu, is caused by a virus and is commonly spread by coughing and sneezing. It can be contracted by breathing in tiny airborne droplets of nasal secretions or by touching surfaces infected with the droplets, such as door knobs, public phones and coffee pot handles.

Anyone can get influenza, and for some people it lasts only a few days. However, in many cases, the symptoms hang on for more than a week. It can cause fever, sore throat, chills, fatigue, cough, headache and muscle aches.

Influenza can lead to pneumonia and can be dangerous for people with heart or breathing conditions. The flu can also lead to ear and sinus infections; dehydration; and the worsening of diabetes or respiratory diseases. On average, 226,000 people in the U.S. are hospitalized every year because of influenza and 36,000 die. Many could avoid the illness by getting a flu shot.

Don’t fear the needle

Are you one of those who still believe that there’s no good reason to get a flu shot? How about that myth that the flu vaccine will actually give you the flu? Any true believers left on that one? Let’s go myth busting.

The inactivated (dead) vaccine, or the “flu shot” is administered by an injection into the muscle. It cannot give you the flu. What it can do is tell your body to build antibodies to the virus. Then, once you are exposed, an army of antibodies will be available to fight. It takes up to two weeks for protection to develop after receiving the shot. Protection lasts up to a year.

Influenza viruses are always changing, so vaccines are updated every year. Scientists try to anticipate which viruses are the most likely to be present in any given year, but their crystal ball is not perfect. Flu shots are not guaranteed to protect against all flu viruses, just the ones selected in advance by the vaccine team.

Still swear that you or someone you knew got the flu from the vaccine in the past?

The reality is that anyone who gets a flu shot and then develops the flu was probably already harboring a virus when they were vaccinated.

Some folks should just say ‘no’

With a few exceptions, anyone can receive the flu vaccine. It is highly recommended for people who are older than 65. It is also recommended for people who have diabetes, lung, heart, kidney or liver disease; sickle cell disease or other anemia; cancer; or HIV/AIDS. It is recommended as well for those who have had their spleen removed; or who are on prescription steroids, such as prednisone.

A flu shot is also recommended for anyone who wants to reduce the likelihood of becoming ill with influenza or spreading it to others. Truckers and others who travel or who are exposed to the public on a regular basis are also encouraged to take the shot because of their increased risk of exposure.

However, it is important that you do not receive a flu shot if you are allergic to eggs because the vaccine virus is grown in eggs.

Other people who should say no to flu shots include:

  • those who have had a severe reaction to a prior flu shot;
  • anyone with Guillain-Barre syndrome;
  • anyone who is sick with fever or cold/cough.It is recommended that you wait for the illness to pass before taking a flu shot.

Anyone who has severe allergies should ask their regular healthcare provider whether a flu shot would be safe and beneficial.

Timing is everything

For the maximum benefit, get vaccinated in October or November. Influenza can occur any time from November through May, but it most often peaks in January or February. Even given in December, the flu shot can still offer protection for the remainder of the season.

Many flu shot clinics are at easily accessible places, such as chain grocery stores and pharmacies, and many list their schedules on the Internet. Truck stop clinics also will have the vaccine available. You can also check with local clinics while on layovers, or discuss the vaccine with your personal physician while home.

Allergic reactions to the vaccine are rare. If they do occur, it is usually within a few minutes to a few hours after the shot. Those who are receiving the flu shot for the first time should hang around the clinic for at least 20 to 30 minutes because severe reactions will usually happen during that time frame.

Severe reactions may include high fever, behavior changes, difficulty breathing including wheezing and hoarseness, hives, paleness, weakness, sweating, and a rapid pulse. Seek medical attention immediately. The risk of a vaccine causing serious harm, or death, is extremely small.

Mild effects usually last only a day or two and are rare. They include soreness, redness or swelling where the shot was given; low-grade fever; and mild aches.

One shot isn’t the whole shootin’ match

If you’re going to take the time off the road to get a flu shot, check with your doctor concerning other vaccinations you should get at the same time. Many vaccines can be given at the same time as a flu shot (see chart on Page XX). One of the most recommended for adults is the pneumococcal vaccine, which people sometimes refer to as the “pneumonia shot.”

Both the flu vaccine and pneumococcal vaccine are usually covered by health insurance plans. However, if you do not have insurance, the vaccines are available for a nominal fee at clinics. The flu vaccine costs less than the pneumococcal vaccine.

Pneumococcal disease kills more people in the United States each year than all other vaccine-preventable diseases combined. Anyone can get pneumococcal disease. However, some people are at greater risk. These include people 65 and older, the very young, and people with special health problems such as alcoholism, heart or lung disease, kidney failure, diabetes, HIV infection or certain types of cancer.

Pneumococcal disease can lead to serious infections of the lungs, blood and the covering of the brain – aka pneumonia, bacteremia and meningitis. Drugs such as penicillin were once very effective on these infections, but the disease has become more resistant, making treatment more difficult.

The pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPV) protects against 23 common types of pneumococcal. Most healthy adults who get the vaccine develop protection to most or all of these types within two to three weeks of getting the shot.

Usually one dose of the vaccine is all that is needed in a lifetime. A second dose is recommended for those aged 65 and older who got their first dose when they were under 65, if five or more years have passed since that dose, or if someone is immune suppressed.

PPV is a safe vaccine. About half of those who get the vaccine have very mild side effects, such as redness or pain where the shot is given. Fewer than 1 percent develop a fever, muscle aches, or more severe local reactions. Severe allergic reactions have been reported very rarely. LL


Cara Reed, M.S.N., lives in Old Forge, PA, and is a registered nurse and clinical nurse specialist in adult/geriatric health. She currently practices as a case manager in community health and adult preventive health. Cara is the wife, daughter and sister of truckers and has always been interested in the trucking industry and, in particular, truckers’ health habits.