The People's Perspective on Medicine

Should You Get Your Flu Shot Now? How Well Will It Work?

Do you get your flu shot every fall? How effective is the influenza vaccine? Do you care? What can Australia tell us about the coming flu season in the US?

The signs are up at pharmacies that you should get your flu shot ASAP! Public health authorities are already sounding warnings about the coming flu season. It won’t be long before television news anchors are reminding you that it’s time to get your flu shot. What almost no news organization ever reports is how effective the flu shot was last year. The CDC usually announces last season’s vaccine statistics in the summer when most people could care less about influenza. We’ll tell you about the vaccine’s disappointing track record during the 2018-2019 flu season and what might be in store for you this winter.

CDC’s Update on Last Year’s Flu:

The FDA was optimistic about the influenza vaccine at the beginning of the 2018-2019 flu season. The scientists believed that they had predicted the strains that would be prevalent and had come up with a close match for the flu shots.

At first, that seemed to be true. Early reports were that nearly half of the people who got their shots were protected. That’s better than usual. By February, 2019, the optimism was fading. An emerging strain of H3N2 mutated just enough to overcome the vaccine. It was at best 9% effective. In other words, 9 out of 10 people who had gotten a flu shot were not protected during the virulent late winter/spring epidemic. The overall flu shot effectiveness for the 2018-2019 season was 29%, substantially lower than the more typical 41% of a typical year.

History of Flu Vaccine Effectiveness

Vaccine Effectiveness in Past Years:

2004-2005: Vaccine Effectiveness was: 10%

2005-2006: Vaccine Effectiveness was: 21%

2006-2007: Vaccine Effectiveness was: 52%

2007-2008: Vaccine Effectiveness was: 37%

2008-2009: Vaccine Effectiveness was: 41%

2009-2010: Vaccine Effectiveness was: 56%

2010-2011: Vaccine Effectiveness was:  60%

2011-2012: Vaccine Effectiveness was:  47%

2012-2013: Vaccine Effectiveness was: 49%

2013-2014: Vaccine Effectiveness was: 52%

2014-2015: Vaccine Effectiveness was: 19%

2015-2016: Vaccine Effectiveness was: 47%

2016-2017: Vaccine Effectiveness was: 42%

2017-2018: Vaccine Effectiveness was: 40%

Overall Effectiveness:             41%

Many people see these statistics (41%)  as good news. Messages to “get your flu shot” are welcomed. Other people see 41% as unimpressive. And when they read that last year the vaccine was only 29% effective, they are less enthusiastic about the “get your flu shot” message. Older people, who are especially vulnerable to influenza, fared even worse last year. Only 13% were protected by the flu shot.

Influenza Is Serious:

We would be very sympathetic with the public health message to “get your flu shot,” especially if the vaccine worked better. Every year, people suffering influenza and similar viral illness miss a lot of work and school. In addition, the flu can lead to serious complications that require hospitalization.

Pregnant women, older people, very young children and those with chronic diseases affecting the lungs or the heart are more vulnerable to such problems or even death.

The Australian Experience:

No one knows how severe the coming influenza season will be or whether this year’s vaccine will be effective. We can look to Australia, however, where flu season is just wrapping up. The southern hemisphere is always six months ahead.

It wasn’t particularly severe and lasted not quite as long as usual. Their 2019 flu outbreak had a preponderance of influenza A H3N2. The vaccine did not match as well as authorities had hoped. It’s unclear if American authorities are using the same vaccine as the Australian public health officials employed in 2019.

We won’t know how well the American flu shots will match circulating viruses until we are well into the season. Last year, the Australian vaccine was not very effective against H3N2. Fingers are crossed that it will hold up in the U.S.

Antiviral Drugs?

What about oral antiviral drugs like Tamiflu or Xofluza? Although the CDC does recommend antiviral medications, many health professionals are skeptical. They see the results of clinical trials that are modest at best. You can learn more about these medications at this link:

What Should You Know About Xofluza Side Effects?

Overdosing on Xofluza for Flu Led to Devastating Diarrhea

Should you get your flu shot now? That is a question that each person will have to answer on her own. Older people who are especially vulnerable probably should get vaccinated, even though based on last year’s data they may be less well protected.

Please share your own experience with flu shots in the comment section below.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
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I won’t get a flu shot, as I don’t believe in injecting myself with unknown substances. Flu shots are not without risks! I work in a large office, and it seems like the people who are always out ill in the winter are the ones who swear by their flu shots every year.

I have had the flu after getting the vaccine, and it is very mild. Influenza can be life-threatening if you are not vaccinated. This article makes it sound like the vaccine is useless if you end up infected with the flu anyway. It can still save your life, not to mention weeks of misery.

The only time I ever took a flu shot was in 2004. Within a few days, I was sick with one upper respiratory pest illness after another, after another, after another. This went on until April. I had gotten the flu shot in early November. I could actually feel myself recovering from the symptoms of stuffy nose, sore throat, etc, only to feel them return, quite literally, half an hour later. It seemed to me that the flu shot had trashed my immune system, and I never got another one. Now I am 75. Came down with pneumonia this summer, which made my heart failure worse. Am wondering whether to take the flu shot or not. Certainly do not want my immune system destroyed again for the next five months, and I know the shots are not particularly effective, but OTOH, don’t want to get the flu and end up in the hospital again. I do have some Oscillococcinum and some influenzinum, they may work better than the pharmaceuticals.

I never used to get the flu shots, but in the early 90’s I became very ill with the flu and suffered permanent lung damage as a result. Ever since then, I get the flu shot every year and have only become ill with the flu one time. My husband, who never gets the flu vaccine, also became ill at about the same time. His illness was much worse than mine, and I recovered more quickly than he did. Although the vaccine did not prevent me from becoming ill, I feel that it gave me some degree of protection from severe illness, and I will continue to get vaccinated every year. I am over 70 years old now and don’t want to end up in the hospital or the morgue from the flu.

I take Lauricidin and elderberry + blueberries and avoid sugar along with the flu shot. So far I have not had the flu. I also try to get eight hours sleep and drink plenty of water. I take beta glucan and other supplements. If I feel a cold coming on I take wild oregano oil and olive leaf. I try to protect myself without antibiotics.

Had what was diagnosed as the flu years ago and don’t want it again! Have gotten the preventive shots since they were offered — no problems.

Switched from ranitidine to pepcid por si las moscas (just in case.)

Get the flu shot anyway. When you’ve seen someone’s health ruined and eventually die from flu complications, it makes you think twice about skipping it.

And realize that it doesn’t just affect you. I have a friend in fragile health. The last time I was really sick was 2012. I had had the flu shot once before and got sick, so I avoided it.

I met my friend when I hadn’t fully recovered, and she got sick right afterwards. I can’t justify the possibility that I might make her sick.

I have done the flu shot every year since. And I have not gotten sick from it one time.

Disappointed that they can’t do better than that. What’s the use? Why even bother? The odds are much higher you won’t get sick anyway. The shot is practically useless.

The one year I took a flu vaccine back in the 90s (because it was free at my workplace), I was sick All. Winter. Long. I’ve never taken another one, and although I did get the flu once, I’d rather do that than battle respiratory sicknesses all winter.
When I retired recently, I was anticipating volunteering at my local hospital. Their policy that all volunteers had to take a flu shot cost them this volunteer.
Never again!

I have gotten my flu shot every year for at least 15 years and can say I’ve not had a bad case of the flu. One year when my adult children were all sick with the bad flu symptoms, I had a kind of cold, so I think it was a watered down flu because of the vaccine. Of course, I’m not a medical person, so that is just a guess.

Some protection is better than none! One day of the flu is too much so I appreciate every little bit of decreased symptoms. Medicine is an art not a science.

Why take chances with Flu vaccines. For the past several years vitamin D3 has played a big roll in improving your immune system. We have lot of studies on the benefits of Vitamin D3. Fifteen years ago stores were not selling now every chemist and stores like Walmart have vitamin D3 on shelves with all kinds of doses and packages. This is not expensive and one needs to take it every day at least 10,000 I.U. daily. Have your D3 level checked with your primary care doctor and remember anything less then 50 is deficient and you need your level to be optimum around 60-70.
Ashok Patel MD

I am 84 years old and have never had a flu shot. I think it’s because I take ~3-4 grams of crystalline Vitamin C every day, dissolved in tomato juice. Been doing this for over 40 years.

I got the flu shot every year for 20 years while serving in the USAF. I got the flu 3 times, and recovered within 2 weeks.

I have been out of the USAF for 24 years; no flu shots and no flu. I am 64 now and do not plan on getting a flu shot or any other shot, any time soon. I do not even remember when I last had a cold.

I’m about to turn 72 and have yet to have a flu shot, primarily because I’m skeptical of preventive medical advice in general after a lifetime of being advised to take “preventive” actions that turned out to be either only modestly beneficial or more likely to be harmful than helpful. Perhaps in this particular instance I should change my mind.

I’ve been so lucky. I’ve been taking flu shots for 30 years or more. I only had a mild case of flu one time. That was around the 2-3 time I took it. I would never hesitate to take my flu shot. I’m now 76 years old and trust the shots.

I’d hoped the article would have addressed the two vaccines for seniors. How do they differ from each other? Is one more effective than the other?

I’ll get the flu shot because it will help. But I’ll take other steps, too — be especially careful to keep a good distance from people coughing, avoid crowds, get plenty of rest, etc. All the ”non-shot” flu prevention tactics.

I wonder how much good it does to wear one of those masks over mouth and nose? I’ve never done it, but, given the efficacy stats, should we all consider wearing masks if the flu season is severe?

I had the flu a few years ago and will do anything to avoid getting it again. Even if it is not as effective as we would like I don’t think it hurts anything to get it. I got it last year, didn’t get the flu, and didn’t have any side effects from vaccine. I’m 67.

The article didn’t address the topic of how long does the flu shot effectiveness last nor the fact that seniors require a stronger vaccine than normal, which is sometimes out of stock at pharmacies and clinics. My pharmacy is urging customers to let them give you your flu shot RIGHT NOW. I commented that it’s still early in the season, and the effectiveness of the shot tapers off after a few months, so getting a shot now would leave a weakened effectiveness in January and February, which are typically very active flu months. The pharmacy rep’s reply was that THIS flu shot lasts a whole year — which is something my doctor says is nonsense and that he’s heard nothing about a year-long coverage for the shot.

Your comments, please.

I’m 71. Two years ago, I put off getting my flu shot because I read that seniors should wait until December so they’d have better protection in February. I got the flu the day before I was scheduled for my shot and was horribly sick for a month. From now on, I will get my flu shot in October or early November. In years I’ve gotten a timely flu shot, I have never had the flu.

But I have to call you out on the photo used for this article. Flu shots are not painful and most adults would not react the way the guy in the photo does. In my opinion, you are encouraging anti-vax attitudes with that photo.

There are many over-the-counter steroid sprays that may affect one’s immune system and inactivate the immune response necessary for flu shots to work. I tend to believe this is why flu shots are getting less effective.

13% effective is not enough for older people. I don’t get the flu shot, and
won’t.

I am 74 and have 3 autoimmune diseases. Whenever I get a vaccination I have an immune response and get very sick. I am still not over my response from the second shringrix vaccination I had October 10 of 2018. I got the flu vaccination for 4 years and got very sick each time I got it. I don’t get it anymore because of its lack of effectiveness and my reaction.

I know many health professionals who resent that they have to get it because they too get sick from it. The hospitals and pharmacies also get money each time they give a shot. It is a good money maker for them as well as as the manufacturer. I think we each need to make our own decision. What else would you choose to do that has such a dismal record?

We are seniors and got the stronger dose of the flu vaccine last fall. My husband got the flu in late January and was knocked out for at least two weeks. He was in bed and didn’t eat much the first week. I managed to stay far enough away from him that I didn’t get it.

One omission: “Herd immunity.” That happens when more people get the shot, thus fewer get the flu, thus there are fewer to spread it to the weaker. And would it not also be the case that when flu viruses get the chance to get into more hosts and thus reproduce more, that they have more opportunities to mutate?

I can’t recall what it’s like to have the flu, always get my flu shot, and so I wasn’t awake to the symptoms of flu.
In March 2019, my 98 year old mother’s clinician thought Mom had a touch of pneumonia and prescribed antibiotics. Two days later, Mom tripped over her walker and fell in her retirement community apartment. She ended up in the hospital because her breathing sounded bad, wasn’t improving, and things hurt when she moved. ER doc tested for flu, which was positive, and she had 3 broken ribs. She’d had her flu shot in the fall.

Mom was in the hospital for almost a week, then in rehab for two more weeks. Had either the clinician or I recognized that it was the flu, she could have been treated with tamiflu and perhaps avoided the weakness that contributed to the fall. Who knows?

So Mom’s back in her apartment, with an aide for a bit in the mornings, but she’s had cognitive decline as a result of all this, which is not unexpected. I’d like to leave this thought here. When we keep patching ourselves up to prevent death, really what we are doing is postponing the inevitability of death. None of us get out of here alive. What we eventually die of, and also with, might well be more prolonged and far worse to experience. How to know when and how to stop treating?

It sounds like the flu shot will help a little. It gives a 29% advantage. Does that mean I might get sick a third less. Like instead of 3 times only 2 times? If that’s what it means I’ll take that, especially since the shot is free! What’s to lose? Is there a reason NOT to get the shot?

You said we could look to Australia, but you did not include the effectiveness rate, so how does that help?

A week after I received the flu shot last year, I had sores and inflammation in my mouth. I was diagnosed with lichen planus, an autoimmune condition. Research from the Mayo Clinic stated that the flu vaccine could be a cause. I had always gotten a flu shot, but last year, due to my age, (77), I received the multi-dose new vaccine. These usually have thimerosal as a preservative and am wondering if I had a reaction to that. No one can tell me. Meanwhile, a year later, I still have lichen planus.

Last year my husband (79 yrs old) got the flu shot. He got the flu. The doctor said if he hadn’t taken the shot, he would have fared a lot worse. I believe in the shots.

30% protection is better than zero. I’ll take it.

Hype and more hype. What are the long term implications of taking these drugs? What exactly is in a flu shot? My worst flu was in 1975 at age 25. I have missed my shot every year since the mid 1980’s. I just don’t trust drugs of any kind.

The cousin of a lady at the company gym got his flu shot last Thanksgiving. He had to go into the hospital until last May. When he came home, his wife had to quit her job to take care of him. Her insurance has quit covering the bills. (I assume she hit the maximum limit the insurance will pay.) So, she has contacted a lawyer to sue in federal vaccine court, but he has a two year backlog. Historically, the vaccine court covers one-third of claims. Even so, the government has paid out $4 Billion since the program began. I understand pharmaceutical firms can’t be sued because of federal legislation.

I don’t get the flu shot anymore since a lady at work was in the hospital two weeks with shoulder pain several years ago. Fortunately, my naturopath says Oscillococcinum is effective for flu if applied early.

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. Its a crap shoot as usual.

I know how disappointing these statistics are, although as a family physician i still get my annual flu shot and advised my patients do the same.

I’m 62 and have not had the flu since I was a teenager, when I first had a flu shot. I get one every fall, religiously. The worst reaction I ever suffered was a sore shoulder for a day or two, and that only happened a few times.

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