Q. Who should not get a flu shot?
Talk with a doctor before getting a flu shot if you: 1) Have ever had a severe allergic reaction to eggs or to a previous flu shot or 2) Have a history of Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS).
If you are sick with a fever when you go to get your flu shot, you should talk to your doctor or nurse about getting your shot at a later date. However, you can get a flu shot at the same time you have a respiratory illness without fever or if you have another mild illness.
Normally, about one person per 100,000 people per year will develop Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), an illness characterized by fever, nerve damage, and muscle weakness. In 1976, about 46 million U.S. residents were vaccinated against swine flu, and 532 of them developed GBS. Thirty-two died. This number of cases was greater than expected and established a link between the swine flu shot and GBS. Since then, concern has been raised about a possible link between other, non-swine flu vaccines and GBS.
What is GBS?
Guillain-Barré (pronounced ghee-YAN bah-RAY) syndrome is a disease in which the body damages its own nerve cells (outside of the brain and spinal cord), resulting in muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis. GBS can last for weeks to months and 5 to 6% of people who develop GBS die. Most people eventually recover completely or nearly completely, but some people have permanent nerve damage. GBS affects people of both sexes and all ages, and has been reported in all races.
What causes GBS?
It is thought that GBS may be triggered by an infection. The infection that most commonly precedes GBS is caused by a bacterium called Campylobacter jejuni . Other respiratory or intestinal illnesses and other triggers may also precede an episode of GBS. In 1976, vaccination with the swine flu vaccine was associated with getting GBS. Several studies have been done to evaluate if other flu vaccines since 1976 were associated with GBS. Only one of the studies showed an association. That study suggested that one person out of 1 million vaccinated persons may be at risk of GBS associated with the vaccine.
Q. Why get a flu shot?
An annual flu shot is the best way to reduce the chances that you will get the flu. Influenza is a serious disease, and people of any age can get it. In an average year, the flu causes 36,000 deaths (mostly among those aged 65 years or older) and 114,000 hospitalizations in the United States. The "flu season" in the United States is usually from November through April each year. During this time, flu viruses are circulating in the population.
Q. Why do I need to get a flu shot every year?
Flu viruses change from year to year, which means two things. First, you can get the flu more than once during your lifetime. The immunity (natural protection that develops against a disease after a person has had that disease) that is built up from having the flu caused by one virus strain doesn't always hold up when a new strain is circulating. Second, a vaccine made against one flu virus may not protect against the newer viruses. That is why the influenza vaccine is updated to include current viruses every year. A third reason to get a flu vaccine every year is that after you get a flu shot, your immunity to the flu declines over time and may be too low to provide protection after one year.