The Flu: Questions and Answers with a UPMC Expert

By: Cristina Mestre

The seasonal flu has hit hard across the country, making this one of the worst years for flu in the past decade. There have been more than  23,000 laboratory proven cases of the flu in Allegheny County alone and 75 people across the state have died, according to the latest statistics from the Pennsylvania Department of Health.  

UPMC’s David Nace, M.D., M.P.H., director of Long-Term Care and Flu Programs and chief of medical affairs for the UPMC Senior Communities, has seen the effects of the flu season first hand. Here he answers some common questions about the flu.  

How effective is the flu shot in preventing against the virus?
In general, the flu vaccine is very effective in preventing the flu or its complications. The effectiveness of the flu vaccine may vary each year depending on which flu strain is circulating. It may also be less effective in frail or older persons who have impaired immune systems. This year, researchers have estimated the flu vaccine to be 62 percent effective against the flu. While the flu vaccine is not 100 percent effective, it is important to remember that no medical therapy is and it is still important to get the flu vaccine.
Is it possible to actually get the flu from the flu shot?
It is not possible to get the flu from the flu shot. The flu is an infection and infections are transmitted by living organisms such as bacteria or viruses. The flu shot does not have live virus in it.

Some people get a sore arm or a mild feverishness after a flu shot – usually the first time they get a flu shot. This isn’t the same as the flu. It doesn’t last for days, nor cause you to stop eating or have to be in bed. This is simply your immune system reacting to the flu shot, forming protection for the coming season.

Are there people who shouldn’t get a flu shot? 
Some people should not get the flu vaccine, but these account for less than 2 percent of the population.  Since the flu vaccine is developed using chicken eggs, persons who have a severe life-threatening allergy to eggs should not get the flu shot. However, recent experience has shown that those with minor egg allergies may get the vaccine with no problem. If you have a question, check with your doctor.

If you have had a prior allergic reaction to the flu shot, you should avoid getting another. This is very, very, very rare. Also, individuals who have had the rare neurological disease known as Guillian-Barre syndrome should talk with their doctor before getting the vaccine. 

If you are pregnant, you should get the flu shot. The flu shot is not harmful to the mother, and it is not harmful to the child. In fact, studies have shown that giving the flu shot to pregnant women protects the newborn baby against the flu.

Do I  need to avoid public places to prevent getting sick?
Most people should not worry about being around others or visiting public places, especially if you have had the flu shot. If you have serious health problems such as emphysema, advanced heart failure, or have a compromised immune system, then you might want to consider avoiding visitation to some public places, particularly hospitals or nursing homes where there are likely to be persons with the flu. 

Do you or your family get the flu shot?
I get the flu shot every year. I have only missed the flu shot once in the last decade and a half, and I paid for it dearly! My wife gets the flu shot every year as do my kids. In fact, my kids remind me about it each year. They don’t want the flu either.