Will the flu shot really make you sick? Science writer debunks flu shot myths

I know the effectiveness and safety of flu vaccines are a hot-button issue so I wanted to share this article from a science writer debunking common myths about flu shots.

It is written by science journalist Tara Haelle, and recommended as a good read by my friend and favorite science writer Maryn McKenna, who Is Senior Fellow at Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism and Science of Health columnist and contributing editor at Scientific American.

Haelle, has gone through and addressed 25 myths about flu shots. I can only pull a few but you should go and read her entire article on her site.  She links out to other articles and explains why the myths are not true. I pulled some of the ones I hear the most from other parents.

From Red Wine and Applesauce: Health Science News for Moms:

“First, an important note: I am a science journalist but not a medical doctor. I’ve compiled research here to debunk common myths about the flu vaccine. You should always consult a reliable, trusted medical professional with questions that pertain specifically to you. For the CDC recommendations on the 2013-2014 flu vaccines (including information on which vaccines pregnant women, the elderly and children under 2 should *not* get), please consult the CDC site directly.”

“Myth #1: The flu vaccine gives you the flu or makes you sick. (No, it doesn’t.)

“Myth #2: Flu vaccines contains dangerous ingredients, such as mercury, formaldehyde and antifreeze. (Not exactly, and the ingredients aren’t dangerous.)

“Myth #6: Flu vaccines don’t work. (Um, they do work.)

“Myth #7: Flu vaccines don’t work for children. (Again, they work.)

“Myth #12: The flu vaccine weakens your body’s immune response. (It actually strengthens it.)

“Myth #16: People don’t die from the flu unless they have another underlying condition already. (Actually, healthy people DO die from the flu.)

“Myth #17: People with egg allergies cannot get the flu shot. It will kill them! (No, it won’t, and there’s an egg-free vaccine.)

“Myth #23: Making a new vaccine each year only makes influenza strains stronger. (No, it doesn’t.)”

So what do you think? Are you afraid of flu vaccines? Do you think they really don’t work? Does this help convince you otherwise? Does your family get flu shots?

45 comments Add your comment


October 31st, 2013
5:00 am

I don’t like getting shots they hurt!


October 31st, 2013
5:33 am

I’ve had nothing but good with my flu shots so far. I had the real, HTG flu in January of 1988. I begged for death. I called my children in one at a time and said goodby. Never want that again!


October 31st, 2013
5:46 am

I refuse to get a flu shot. The last time I got one, back in 1993, I was sick as a dog for a week. Have not had the flu since, nor have I had a flu shot.

Hubs and the kids don’t get the shot either. None of us have had the flu since I did back in 93.

However, my parents get the shot every year.


October 31st, 2013
6:01 am

More Obamacare lies. The flu shot is secret mind control by the govrenment witch I refuse 2 take.


October 31st, 2013
6:38 am

I got my flu shot about 6 weeks ago. We had our son give it to us. I was amazed that it did not hurt AT ALL. He laughed and reminded me that he administered over 600 vaccines last year when he was in NM on the reservation, one of his internships, so he had plenty of practice. They now have the nose mist too. He said he knows how to do it and he did!

My arm was sore for a day but I did not feel bad at all. Since I am around a lot of different kids and adults, I do not want to take the risk of getting the flu. I am also self employed and thus sick days mean no pay for me. I do not want to go into schools when I am sick.

Getting a flu shot is something I take seriously, as I have known those who have gotten VERY sick with the flu.

@ Mayhem, I respect your right to not get the shot but you did get it 20 years ago and things may have changed a bit. If you do not feel you need it, then that works for you. If your kids work at Costco, they can get one easily and know how many germs come in that door! I love to shop there!


October 31st, 2013
7:34 am


The 4th grader, Nicholas, died of the flu 2 days after getting sick. He was a normal healthy young man until then.

His family, his friends, and his school still miss him. The school has a memorial garden planted in his honor by the gym.

I was never in favor of the shot before that incident last year. My parents got it, and now so will my children.

Teacher, Too

October 31st, 2013
7:43 am

The commercials tell you that after getting the nasal dose, you may run a fever and have cold-like symptoms. My parents get the flu shot every year, and my mom gets sick after getting the flu shot every year. I don’t get the shot or the mist. I don’t like shots; my doctor and I argue over this. But I have never had the flu– I tend towards bronchitis every January.


October 31st, 2013
7:56 am

I have received the flu shot every year for longer than I recall. I have experienced no side effects at all and haven’t gotten the flu. Since it isn’t the “real” or a “true” virus there is no true manner by which the shot can make one sick or give one the flu; except, of course, for the phychological induced variety I believe some people acquire.

i LOVE...

October 31st, 2013
8:20 am

I posted a similar idea a few weeks ago to my friends (and acquaintances) on Facebook. Even my nurse friends believe the shot makes people sick! I’m SO OVER ignorance…

I get the flu shot now that I have a child (this is only my third year receiving it), but even before then I had not contracted the flu since I was a youngster. As a teacher, I feel as if my immune system is outstanding!! It also helps that I am generally healthy anyway.

Thanks for sharing these debunked myths!! I am going to pass it along.


October 31st, 2013
8:30 am

So, when you feel ill after getting the flu shot it’s not because it’s giving you a weak version of the flu.

It’s because you’re sensitive to the asjuvants in the shot. Adjuvants are added to the shot to increase your immune response to the vaccine, thus making it more effective.

So, your immune system has been tricked into mounting a response as if you actually had some disease, when you actually don’t. in order to make all the antibodies you need to stave off the actual disease.

It’s like a biological Trojan horse.

When this happens, you may feel bad. Whether or not you do and to what extent vary from person to person because, hey, this is biology, not physics.

Some people’s response is so severe they can’t get vaccines. For instance, I can no longer get tetanus vaccines because of the response I have to them. I am at risk for anaphylaxis, But, I can get flu shots just fine.


October 31st, 2013
8:30 am

I don’t normally get one but that’s b/c I work from home and am fairly limited on my exposure. I’m a bit torn this year as we have a niece and two nephews who attend daycares that we’ll be around. My son is a freshman in college and I’ve bugged him about going and getting one but I don’t think he has yet. I’ll remind him this weekend to find a place when he’s out and about.

usually lurking

October 31st, 2013
8:54 am

I delayed getting my flu shot last year, and ended up with the flu. 10 days. Already got my shot for this year. @Techmom – send your son this link: http://www.theonion.com/articles/mom-breaks-into-sons-apartment-at-night-to-adminis,34293/


October 31st, 2013
8:55 am

I too work from home and have never gotten the flu shot. But my son has gotten it every year since he was 1 and hasn’t had a problem. I think it’s important for the very young (especially school-age kids who are around a ton of other kids on a daily basis) and the old to get it. Those of us in the middle can decide for ourselves. I am not in close contact with a lot of people every day, so I take my chances. But hearing about how nasty the flu is and how complications can affect even healthy adults, I may change my mind!


October 31st, 2013
9:24 am

It was 9% effective last year for senior citizens. I’ll pass on it, as I do every year.


October 31st, 2013
9:40 am

justmy2cents, that’s not fully accurate. It was 9% effective against H3N2 strain, but it was a combined 27% effective against all three strains the vaccination was developed for last year.



October 31st, 2013
9:42 am

“It was 9% effective last year for senior citizens.”

That’s still 8.99995 % better than your BS filter.


October 31st, 2013
9:52 am

@usually lurking, I definitely will- too funny!


October 31st, 2013
10:05 am

Jarvis- wow a whopping 27%- I will still take my chances. Sorry aquagirl, you don’t believe the CDC’s own results?


October 31st, 2013
10:25 am

So, instead of partial protection you opt for zero protection? What do you gain by that?

Not getting a needle poke in the arm?
Not having to leave your house to get the needle poke?


October 31st, 2013
10:52 am

“Sorry aquagirl, you don’t believe the CDC’s own results?”

Yes I do. Last year was quite unusual, the average level of protection is around 60-70% and it was still about 50% for all other age groups last year. And like iRun pointed out, you’re going with 0%. Any way you look at it the math here is not all that difficult. You seem confused and disoriented by one cherry-picked scare statistic.

Native Altantan

October 31st, 2013
10:57 am

I’m pretty fanatical about getting my flu shot every year. I traveled 5 days a week for 15 years and I just didn’t want to risk it. I work from home now but I do go to the gym every morning and there is no worse germ factory than the gym, well…..maybe schools are worse but not by much. I did feel a bit achy for a couple of days after the shot this year but I certainly was not sick.

Once Again

October 31st, 2013
11:06 am

Fearmongering is the basis of the entire American medical establishment. Keep the toxins out of your body and fight the flu naturally. Your immune system is strong enough to handle the flu, but directly injecting these toxins into your body while bypassing the protections that your digestive tract delivers is just insane.


October 31st, 2013
11:27 am

I think I posted this back in August, but I’m not sure. My son was “Patient Zero” at CHOA this year. He caught influenza during the Summer. It’s almost unheard of.

@Once Again, I can tell you this, his immune system fought it, but it was absolutely miserable. Achy, fevery and vomitting on and off for 8 days. He was weak for another 14, and actually still has a lingering cough that they say might take 6 months to completely clear.

If you’re wondering, he’s an otherwise healthy and athletic boy, but it totally kicked his azz. If you can read the cited empriacal evidence listed in this blog and still come back with the “naturalist” paranoid BS, then you are simply ignoring science.

As for us, we’ll pay the $20 to give our kids the better shot of not getting that crap again.


October 31st, 2013
11:34 am

I have gotten a flu shot every year for the last 25. Not once did I get sick from the shot. I have only had a minor flu once in all that time. I had a slight side effect to this year’s. A real bad headache for a few hours the next day.

Theresa Walsh Giarrusso

October 31st, 2013
11:41 am

My understanding from the pediatrician is that the nasal flu vaccine is actually a weakened but LIVE virus. You can get low-level case of the flu from the nasal spray. You should NOT take the spray if you have asthma or other lung issues. My two girls have asthma so they have to take the shot because it’s dead. My son doesn’t have breathing issues and hates shots so he takes the spray.

Now when we lived in Atlanta we couldn’t use the spray because you are NOT supposed to be around people with suppressed immune systems — such as my mom who takes shots for rheumatoid arthritis and my brother who take immune suppressive medicine since he had a heart transplant. Since we are out here now and not around them I can let Walsh take the spray.

I never used to get the shot as a kid but when we moved to New York City in the 1990s, we learned that EVERYONE takes the shot there. It’s such close quarters on the subways and in apt buildings that everyone takes it!! So I have taken it every since.


October 31st, 2013
11:41 am

Yep, I go with 0%. Never had the flu either. I work around thousands of people every day; my immune system is pretty robust. That’s not to say I can’t or won’t ever catch the flu, but my personal choice is not to get the shot.

Real Life

October 31st, 2013
11:46 am

I always have had flu-like symptoms as a reaction to the flu vaccine. Started with my first one and continues to this day. My doctors call it faux flu and say many people get it. One year I declined the flu shot but the nurse gave it to me with other vaccines as she misunderstood what the doctor said. I did not know I received the shot and still got the flu-like symptoms. It runs in our family, on the maternal side. Debunking myths is a good thing, but in this instance #1 can be true for some people. The reaction mimics the flu–primarily aching all over the body and occasionally accompanied by a low-grade fever and lasts 24-48 hours. It is not the flu simply a peculiar reaction to the vaccine.


October 31st, 2013
11:54 am

They now have a 4 strain virus flu shot. Normally it’s 3 strain. However, I read where they don’t even know of a 4th strain, but were still administering that one.


October 31st, 2013
12:24 pm

I was always on the fence about it until I got pregnant in 2004/2005. That was the year it was so scarce that only “high risk” individuals (i.e., pregnant women, elderly, etc.) were allowed to get the shot. I did get the shot then, but my husband did not as he was not considered high risk. In the 22 years we have been together, he has been sick 3 times so he’s got a pretty good immune system and in relatively good shape (former D1 college athlete). Unfortunately, one of those 3 times he was sick was the flu when I was pregnant. It was worse than when he had viral meningitis in 2007 and hospitalized for a week. His fever was consistently above 103 and we could not bring it down. While I did get the flu from being in such close proximity to him, my symptoms were nowhere near as bad as his. My fever never broke 100 (which is a good thing when you are pregnant). I did feel bad & achy, but seeing how much worse it could have been made both of us believers.

The sad thing is, people still scoffed and laughed because I still got the flu. However, the symptoms were so much more mild than it could have been that the whole family gets it now.

Preemie mom

October 31st, 2013
12:55 pm

My son was born at 27 weeks and has a compromised immune system. He is also the youngest of four so germs are everywhere in our house. We all get the flu shot and he gets Synergis shots monthly during RSV season. Even with those, he spent 2 weeks in the PICU last year with RSV. It’s not always about how strong your immunity is or how you are willing to take your chances. When a healthy person gets the flu there is a slight chance of complications beyond the standard miserable symptoms but if someone with a weakened immune system comes in contact with you while you are sick, it can mean life or death to them.

I have a comment

October 31st, 2013
4:18 pm

I know that I will pop on here one day and TWG will have written something all by herself. Yeah right – she’s too busy hovering.

Bee Hive Haired cashier at Dooleys Den

October 31st, 2013
5:06 pm

I think those of you opposed to getting the vaccination are scared of the needle and nothing more.

My job requires I take the vaccination and it is provided free. Even if it wasn’t required, I would take it. Too many fat slobs hacking and coughing without covering their mouths inhabit this planet. Why take a chance?

just wondering

October 31st, 2013
5:41 pm

My job requires that you get the shot also. Never been sick for the shot or the flu.

Cold Tuna T Shirt Smell

October 31st, 2013
7:35 pm

Wait……Your job requires that I get the shot?


October 31st, 2013
8:26 pm

I’ve had the flu once, 15 years ago. Bedridden for a full week, barely functional the second week, and it took a good month before I was anywhere near back to normal and not exhausted after the smallest thing. It’s enough to convince me that a flu shot that lowers my odds of catching it again is A Good Thing. My daughter is interning in an environment in close quarters with many pre-schoolers — after the second week of school, after everyone has started swapping germs around and everyone has a cold, she came home one day and declared, “I HAVE to get a flu shot — omigosh, all those runny noses!” :-)


October 31st, 2013
11:31 pm

My husband is military and they are required to get the flu shot unless they have a religious exemption, etc. I believe he got the nasal mist. I am 36 weeks pregnant and my OB didn’t give me much choice–I did receive the shot, though, since the nasal mist contains a strain of the virus and cannot be given to pregnant women. I also got the TDAP vaccine booster…it is MUCH more painful than the flu shot and the side effects were annoying (soreness in upper arm for several days).

I’ve had flu once in my adult life and it was horrible. Even a slightly improved chance of avoiding it is better than nothing, in my book. Plus with the holidays, traveling, being in a hospital (due date is in late November), etc…I’d rather err on the side of caution.


November 1st, 2013
8:05 am

Those of us who have had the flu or know someone who has had it can pretty much agree with DB’s comment: It’s enough to convince me that a flu shot that lowers my odds of catching it again is A Good Thing.

Others may not and that is fine too. Kind of like those of us who mark our suitcases goofily, as we do not want them to get lost or ,if they do,perhaps quickly recovered. Those who have never lost their checked baggage may not be concerned. Also those who do not fly nor check baggage.

Suggestions can be made but follow through is a personal choice.


November 1st, 2013
10:58 am

I get the shot, and I do usually have a fever and some achiness the day after — no biggie, and far better than getting the actual flu. I still caught the flu last year, but it was relatively mild.

As for the lower rate of effectiveness among seniors, I think that’s probably due to many of them having lower immunity in general (also I think effectiveness is measured by whether or not they catch the flu, but not whether or not they get a milder case than they may have without the shot). It’s my understanding that vaccines work by triggering your immune system to build up antibodies against a tiny amount of live virus or a dead virus so it can fight off exposure to that virus later. So if your immune system is already lousy, the vaccine won’t work as well. When my mom was going through chemo, her doctors recommended she not get the flu shot, even though she was high risk, because they said her immunity was so low that the vaccine would not actually be able to build up her system against the flu. Instead, they stressed the importance of all her caregivers having the shot to decrease her risk of exposure.


November 1st, 2013
12:04 pm

Everyone in my family gets a flu shot each year. The one time I missed it, I felt like death for a week. It was awful. The best way (in my opinion) is to get the shot in the late afternoon, and then go to bed once I got home and just stay there until the next morning. Works!


November 2nd, 2013
2:48 pm

My daughter and I both get very mild but flu-like symptoms after our flu shot for about 48 hours EVERY single year. This includes a low- grade fever, about 100 degrees. A fever is not an imaginary symptom! My husband has zero reaction. We get our shots faithfully every year, but I always do it on a Friday night so daughter and I have the weekend to recover. So if you don’t feel well for a couple days after your shot, you are not alone (and you aren’t crazy!)


November 3rd, 2013
9:43 pm

The flu shot can make a person sick, causing fever, fatigue, chills, soreness, etc. What it generally does not do is cause the flu. It’s a distinction that isn’t very useful when you have a fever and are too sick to go to work and have no sick days. So concern over the flu shot and its side effects have been unreasonably categorized as hysteria.


November 3rd, 2013
10:46 pm

I stopped reading at myth #1 because they’re wrong. They started asking teachers to get the flu shot and after 3 years of my dad getting the shot and getting sick days later I know that for some reason the flu shot does make people sick. My father no longer gets the shot and has been fine since.


November 3rd, 2013
11:24 pm

I recently got my flu vaccine yesterday nov2 and that night i got sick, the next morning full blown headache,sinus problem, dizzines and sore throat so what that does that mean? im not trying to be a smart a@S just saying i feel like s4!t after the vaccine within 12 hours getting it


November 3rd, 2013
11:37 pm

I got a flu shot four years ago and kept on getting sick throughout the entirety of the fall/winter season. The year after I opted out and I was perfectly healthy the entire year. The year after that I took it again and once again I continued getting sick throughout fall/winter. This year I have decided I will not take it. If I’m supposed to take it to prevent me from disease then why I am sick for practically 6 months? Many of my friends are the same and I truly find that flu vaccines are now given to help benefit the medical world (so that we buy more medications/have more doctors visits/etc). Call it what you will but I refuse to take another flu shot for as long as I live.


November 4th, 2013
9:47 am

Jeff, it sounds like you had side effects from the shot. The article says the shot doesn’t make you sick, but specifically defines “sick” as having an infection (shot doesn’t actually give you the flu). It does acknowledge that many people suffer side effects, though. It’s also possible that you just came down with something else — weird coincidence, but it’s bound to happened to some people.