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Can you get sick from a flu shot?

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Posted at 12:16 PM, Nov 07, 2014
and last updated 2014-11-16 17:30:49-05

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

That old saying may have stuck around for a reason: According to Mary Duck Robertshaw, M.D., an assistant professor in the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and a UC Health primary care physician, the best way to avoid getting a respiratory illness this season is by taking care of yourself in the first place.

It’s flu season, and after a rough summer in which higher-than-normal rates of enterovirus infections were seen across large swathes of the country, many want to know how to protect themselves and their families.

One of the most important things to do? Get a flu shot. It is your best defense, according to Robertshaw.

“By getting a flu shot, you’re protecting not only yourself, but also others in the community that aren’t able to get a flu shot, such as newborns,” Robertshaw said.

There are many rumors about the flu shot that aren’t true, Robertshaw said.

Here are a few, and the truth behind them:

You can get the flu from getting a flu shot. The influenza vaccine is created with a killed virus, and it can’t infect a person. What it can do is trigger an immune system response, to prepare the body to fight illness. This may present symptoms such as a low-grade fever or aches and pains, but is actually a sign the vaccine is working.

You can’t get sick if you get a flu shot. Many complain of still becoming ill after getting a flu vaccine earlier in the year. According to Robertshaw, those people are likely coming down with a cold, or another virus. The influenza vaccine only protects against influenza, and a person can still come down with the sniffles.

The flu vaccine can turn active people into vegetables instantly. This isn’t true, according to Robertshaw. There are some instances when people should not get a flu shot, such as if a person has an egg allergy. That’s why it’s important to consult with a doctor before getting a shot. But for the majority of people, the chance of contracting the influenza virus and dying from it is actually much more probable than having ill effects from the vaccine itself.

The bottom line, according to Robertshaw, is that the flu vaccine is safe. “There are some rare instances where it is not safe for everybody. First, talk to your doctor before you get the shot. Then get the shot. It’s a responsibility to your community. By preventing yourself from getting the virus, you’re protecting those around you.”

Most respiratory illnesses, including the flu, are spread from droplets in the air, and move from person to person via coughing and sneezing.

“Good hand-washing techniques are really important when it comes to preventing illnesses like the cold or flu,” Robertshaw said.

“Germs live on hands, so washing hands and avoiding touching your eyes and mouth is important.”

The most important times to wash, according to Robertshaw: after using the bathroom, before eating, before entering or leaving work, before kids enter or leave school.

“It’s also important to wipe down shared phones or communal computers a few times a day, to avoid the spread of disease,” Robertshaw said.

When it comes to hand-washing, technique is everything.

Robertshaw recommends using hand soap, making sure to thoroughly lather, washing for at least 20 seconds, and using a paper towel to turn off the faucet  to avoid contaminating freshly washed hands.

Hand sanitizer can be equally effective, according to Robertshaw. “Hand sanitizer works, absolutely. But usually by the fifth or sixth time, it creates a film on your hands, and you do need to wash with soap and water to remove that film so that hand sanitizer can be fully effective.”

Robertshaw acknowledged that a person can do everything right when it comes to illness prevention, but most people will get sick at least once a year. The degree to which a person gets sick can vary widely, and that’s why it’s important for people to at least call their doctor’s office and report symptoms, to see whether or not an appointment is recommended or necessary.

Robertshaw recommends if a person feels him or herself coming down with something to stay home. Most people are able to tell they’re coming down with something, and often feel “off” the day before symptoms really present themselves. Even if a person doesn’t feel fully sick, they can still infect others.