The world feels like a bizarre place right now. We are in the midst of one of the strangest elections in modern American politics — and we’re hearing dozens of reports of creepy clowns appearing in the woods.
But here’s a more productive way to spend your time than obsessing about the news: Go get a flu shot.
It's cheap, it’s inexpensive, and it will help safeguard you against a disease that kills thousands of people each winter. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that all Americans older than 6 months get vaccinated annually. Unless you are a precocious 5-month-old who has already learned to read, this includes you.
Why should I get the flu vaccine?
Let's say you're a selfish person (we're not judging) who questions why you need a flu shot. The best reason to get one is to protect yourself against the upcoming flu season. The flu can be deadly. Over the past 30 years, the flu has been associated with an average of 23,607 deaths, mostly among the young, the sick, and the elderly.
Not every flu season is this bad. Others have killed as few as 3,000 people. But it's really hard to predict in advance how bad each flu season will be — and the only way to try to protect the most vulnerable in any flu season is for as many people as possible to get the shot. A flu shot is a relatively cheap and easy way to hedge your bet — and protect the people around you, even strangers — against a bad season.
Vaccines work best when lots and lots of people are immunized. This is a concept known in science as "herd immunity," something that pediatrician Aaron Carroll explains incredibly well in the video below.
If a small number of people are vaccinated, that's a bit of a roadblock for the disease — but likely not an insurmountable one. There are still lots of unprotected people susceptible to the sickness who can’t get the shot because they’re too young (less than 6 months old) or allergic to the shot
And the handful of people who are immunized aren't entirely safe, either. Vaccines do significantly reduce the risk of getting sick, but they aren't bulletproof. Last year’s flu vaccine, for example, was estimated to have a 61 percent success rate during the 2015-2016 flu season at preventing disease.
If vaccines are going to work, they rely heavily "on the decreased likelihood that anyone will come into contact with the disease," Carroll says.
When you get vaccinated, it makes it harder for other people you come into contact with to catch the flu from you. In other words: If you love your grandparents, whose immune systems might not be as strong as yours to fight off an infection, get a flu shot.
Why shouldn't I get a flu vaccine?
That's a trick question: You should (unless you have an allergy to it)! But 58 percent of American adults don't, according to the most recent figures, making flu the vaccine-preventable disease with some of the lowest vaccination rates. While lots of other vaccinations are required for kids to go to school, the flu has no similar nudge.
About three in 10 Americans say they don't need a flu shot. Another 16 percent just don't get around to it. A 2011 survey found that they have a lot of excuses.
Let's go through a few of the excuses.
I don't need it: The CDC thinks otherwise, and recommends the flu vaccine for all adults. Whether or not you caught the flu last year says nothing about your susceptibility this season. And, as mentioned earlier, the flu vaccine isn't just about you: More vaccinated people means more protection for everyone around you.
I didn't get around to it: Yes, we're all busy. But flu shots are one of the easiest medical treatments to obtain. Walgreen's, CVS, and other major pharmacy chains offer flu shots. In New York City, you can even order a flu vaccine straight to your home or office for $25.
I might get sick/suffer side effects: First off, the flu shot cannot cause the flu — that is a myth. Why? Because the flu vaccine contains an inactive version of the virus, meaning that it's impossible to become infected.
In randomized, controlled trials, researchers have injected some people with flu vaccines and others with a salt-water solution. Those who were injected with the flu vaccine got no more sick than those with the saline solution, aside from some soreness at the site of injection.
“No other adverse effects, including fever, myalgia, headache, fatigue, rhinitis, or sore throat, were reported significantly more often by vaccine recipients, nor did they report significantly more lost workdays or physician visits,” one 2000 study comparing the vaccine to the placebo found.
These are relatively minor side effects compared to the flu, which kills thousands of people each year.
I don’t believe in the flu vaccine: This strikes me as the most fair critique of the flu vaccine — some of the time, you will get the flu even after getting the vaccine.
This is because the flu isn’t just one disease. There are dozens of strains of flu viruses that mutate quickly, and that makes building a vaccine quite challenging. My colleague Julia Belluz explained this incredibly well in an article last year:
Seasonal influenza, which surfaces as a respiratory illness, is caused by influenza A and B viruses. The flu shot is designed to protect people against three or four strains of the A and B viruses that researchers believe will be most common that year, leading to the nasty fevers, headaches, coughs, and runny noses that make many people miserable in the fall and winter.
The challenge, however, is that the flu virus is highly unstable, mutating all the time. So this means drug companies can't just make one kind of vaccine that'll last a lifetime. Every year, public health agencies essentially make educated guesses on what strains and mutations will make the rounds.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that last year’s flu vaccine was 60 percent effective — meaning that those who got it had a 60 percent lower chance of getting the flu. We won’t know how well this year’s vaccine works until flu season is through, unfortunately.
The flu vaccine would be better, of course, if it worked in 100 percent of cases. But a 60 percent reduction in the odds of getting the flu are not nothing! And that’s why public health organizations still routinely endorse getting the vaccine.
"Flu vaccines are not a panacea, and do not prevent all cases of flu, even in the best years, when there are no manufacturing problems and the match is perfect,” Roger Baxter, at the Kaiser Permanente Vaccine Study Center, told Belluz. "However, the vaccines provide moderate protection, and can prevent huge numbers of cases of this serious illness. Many studies have shown that the vaccines are very safe, so the benefit-to-risk ratio is high and the cost is relatively low."
Where can I get a flu shot?
Most drugstores or doctor offices can administer flu shots. To find a location near you, use HealthMap's vaccine finder tool. Most health insurance covers the complete cost of a flu shot but, for the uninsured, HealthMap provides price data too. (Costco, which charges $14.99 for a flu shot, seems to have the cheapest price, but CVS does offer a 20-percent-off-the-entire-store coupon upon vaccination, if you really want to live large.) So find a place giving shots and get vaccinated. There is no good reason not to.