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In college, more than just your class schedule and study habits shift—for many students, college is a time to start taking control of your own health care. Instead of Mom or Dad calling the shots, it’s increasingly likely that you’re the one making your doctor appointments and keeping track of your health history.
A major part of that is your vaccination history. While most vaccinations are recommended and sometimes required (especially for students involved in the health care fields) before you hit campus, you should still be aware of yearly doses like the flu shot, boosters for vaccines you got when you were younger, or first-time doses you might still need.
Vaccines are one of the best possible ways to protect your health and the health of those around you—plus, they can prevent you from taking the blame for spreading that nasty flu around the res hall. Other good news? Vaccines are easy to get.
“Vaccines help sustain health for you, your family, and the community.”
—Kevin M., first-year graduate student at California State University, Fresno
We want to make the immunization process as painless as possible, so here’s what you need to know about the most important vaccines to have in college—what they are, why they’re so necessary, and how to get them.
Why you need it
Despite how commonly we hear about it, the flu isn’t something you want to mess around with (most of the time, when people think they have the flu, it’s actually a less serious viral infection). “Seasonal flu is a serious, highly contagious respiratory illness that affects approximately 5 to 20 percent of individuals each year,” says Dr. Lisa Ipp, associate director of adolescent medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, a medical school in New York City. “Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tells us that of those who get the flu, over 200,000 are hospitalized and tens of thousands die from flu-related complications.”
More likely than landing you in the hospital, getting the flu could really set you back in class. On average, the flu lasts about eight days, and during that time you’ll be more likely to miss lectures and hit up campus health services, according to a 2010 study published in PLOS One. Research published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases found that 46 percent of college students did poorly on an assignment after getting the flu.
When researchers from the PLOS One study modeled the effect of the vaccine, they found that if just 20 percent of people on campus got their flu shot, the number of people who would get the flu that season would drop from 69 percent (if no one got vaccinated) to less than 50 percent. The researchers also found that if just 60 percent of people on campus got vaccinated, less than 1 percent of the campus population would be likely to end up with the flu. This process is called herd immunity—and it works.
The CDC recommends everyone get a flu vaccine each year. “This, of course, includes healthy college students,” says Dr. Ipp. On a college campus, the virus can spread crazy fast. “Without a flu shot, your immune system can’t protect you against the flu because the virus mutates from year to year,” says Dr. Davis Smith, staff physician at the University of Connecticut. Plus, getting yourself vaccinated will help protect the very young and the very old—such as kids or grandparents you’ll see when you head home for break—who are “vulnerable to serious complications of flu because they don’t have the pulmonary and other reserve to tolerate the ravages of this lower respiratory track infection.”
When to get it
Every year, as soon as it becomes available, which is usually September–January (and sometimes later).
“Vaccines are incredibly important because they not only protect you but protect those around you who are susceptible to diseases.”
—Leah H., third-year student at Northern Illinois University
How it works
The flu vaccine covers the three or four strains most likely to land you in bed with chills, aches, and a fever. Each year, the experts predict which strains will be the most common and come up with the flu shot formula that will protect against them. The vaccine is currently available as both an injection and a nasal spray; however, the CDC may recommend one over the other in a given season. Check the current CDC guidelines to make sure you’re getting the recommended version.
The flu vaccine will not give you the flu (no matter how much that girl in class swears she got sick from her flu shot). The vaccine works by causing your body to develop antibodies about two weeks after you get it—so if you do get sick after getting your shot, that means you were already exposed to the germs or were exposed in that two-week window.
How to get it
Flu season lasts from fall to spring, but if you haven’t gotten vaccinated yet, you still can (and should), according to the CDC. Check in with your on-campus health center or your health care provider to get your seasonal flu vaccine. You can also find the vaccine at most community clinics and pharmacies, including CVS and Walgreens. The flu shot typically costs around $40–$70, but under the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies are required to cover it in full. Make sure you check with your provider before you go—some insurance companies require you to get the vaccine from your doctor (not a pharmacy) for the cost to be covered.
Why you need it
“The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine is cancer prevention,” says Lizzy Appleby, a social worker and youth program manager at Angles reproductive healthcare clinic in Illinois. “While most strains of HPV will go away on their own, some strains can cause cancer, including cervical cancers, throat cancers, anal cancers, and penile cancers.” HPV causes 31,500 new cases of cancer each year, according to the CDC, and some strains can also cause genital warts. The vaccine, which is a series of three shots given over the course of a year (only two if you got the vaccine before the age of 15), can prevent that. In other words, it’s a super-important shot for both men and women.
“The HPV vaccination is essentially a cancer vaccination, which is revolutionary.”
—Eliot A., fourth-year student at Metropolitan State University of Denver
So what exactly is HPV? Technically, it’s a group of over 100 related viruses that are mainly spread through sexual skin-to-skin contact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). HPV can cause bumpy warts on or near the genitals, and at least 13 strains of the virus are known to cause cancer.
About one in four Americans are currently infected with the virus, according to the CDC. Luckily, about 90 percent of HPV infections go away on their own within two years, according to WHO, but the vaccine is still super important. “The vaccine can help protect against the nine types of HPV most commonly linked to some cancers and genital warts,” says Dr. Divya Patel, an associate professor of gynecology at the University of Texas. “The HPV vaccine is preventative care, which means that it’s meant to protect you before the protection becomes necessary,” adds Appleby. “It won’t make any STIs [sexually transmitted infections] you already have go away, and it won’t cause an STI if you don’t have one.”
While it’s true that your risk for getting HPV goes up as your number of sexual partners increases, someone who has only had sex with one partner can still contract HPV if their partner has ever been exposed, according to the American Cancer Society. Getting the HPV vaccine does not depend on whether or not you are currently sexually active. In fact, “the vaccine is really most effective if you get it before you’ve been sexually active,” says Dr. Patel. Even if you’ve never been sexually active and don’t plan on being for a long time, getting vaccinated is a vital part of preventing serious health issues down the road.
When to get it
While the CDC recommends the vaccine for pre-teens (preferably at 11 or 12), it’s not too late if you haven’t gotten it. “Catch-up vaccination is recommended all the way up to age 21 for males and age 26 for females,” says Dr. Patel. Men who have sex with men, transgender individuals, and those with compromised immune systems (such as from HIV) can also get the vaccine through age 26.
How to get it
If you’re not sure if you’ve gotten the vaccine (or the full series of shots), start by asking your parent or contacting your pediatrician for your immunization record. If you still need the vaccine, here’s how to get it:
- Many campus health centers offer the HPV vaccine, so that’s an easy place to start.
- You can also get the vaccine at many local pharmacies, such as CVS or Walgreens, or health centers, such as Planned Parenthood.
- Under the Affordable Care Act, all health insurance companies are required to cover the vaccine without any cost to you.
- To pay for the vaccine out of pocket (meaning without insurance), the series of three shots will cost around $700 at a local pharmacy. Prices may vary at your doctor’s office or campus health clinic, so ask them directly.
- If you do not have insurance and are 18 years old or younger, check out the federally funded Vaccines for Children program, which might be able to help offset costs.
Why you need it
The MenACWY vaccine prevents against meningococcal disease (also called meningitis or bacterial meningitis), a very serious and sometimes deadly infection of the brain and spinal cord. It starts with flu-like symptoms (fever, headache, nausea, stiffness in the neck) that rapidly get worse. Some cases can become life-threatening within just a few hours.
Luckily, it’s not super common anymore—thanks to the success of the vaccine. According to the CDC, the number of cases has gone down by 80 percent since the vaccine became widely recommended for preteens and teens in the ’90s. Meningococcal disease is still highly contagious—according to the CDC, it’s transmitted through respiratory and throat secretions, so something as simple as a kiss or a cough can cause an outbreak that spreads like wildfire in close quarters—aka res halls and crowded classrooms. It’s incredibly important to be immunized.
“If it weren’t for vaccines, serious illnesses and diseases would still be plaguing society today. (Polio, for example.)”
—Name withheld, fourth-year student at Berea College in Kentucky
When to get it
The MenACWY vaccine is recommended for all first-year college students age 21 and younger who plan to live in residence halls (though others can still receive the vaccine through age 23). This vaccine is so important that in 39 states, it’s actually required as part of your college admission. College students have a higher risk of getting bacterial meningitis than other young adults, according to the CDC, which is why they recommend you get it even if your school or state doesn’t require it.
How to get it
The CDC recommends getting the shot between the ages of 11 and 12—if you can’t remember whether you’ve had it, ask your parent or contact your childhood doctor for your medical records. If you did get the MenACWY vaccination and it was before your 16th birthday, the US Department of Health and Human Services recommends getting a booster shot before heading to campus for maximum protection.
There’s also a second type of vaccine—serogroup B meningococcal vaccines that might be necessary if you have certain health conditions putting you at greater risk (such as a damaged or removed spleen)—so talk to your doctor to make sure you’re covered.
Because this vaccine is part of the routine childhood immunization schedule, you should be able to find it at your family doctor’s office. Campus health centers, federally funded community health centers, and many pharmacies also provide the vaccine. Just like the HPV vaccine, the ACA requires that all insurance providers cover it. Out of pocket, it costs around $150.
Why you need it
The Tdap vaccine is a triple threat, protecting you against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis—three diseases that are rare but serious.
Tetanus, which you can get when bacteria gets into cuts, kills about 10 percent of people who contract it, says the CDC, and causes severely painful muscle tightening and stiffness. Diphtheria, while extremely rare, isn’t something to mess with—it can cause breathing problems, heart failure, paralysis, and even death. Pertussis—better known as whooping cough—is slightly more common. It can cause severe coughing spells—we’re talking coughing so hard you can fracture your own ribs—that are grave enough to land 2 percent of adolescents who contract it in the hospital with serious complications.
The vaccine has all but eradicated these scary diseases (reported cases of tetanus and diphtheria have dropped by about 99 percent, and cases of pertussis have dropped by about 80 percent, according to the CDC), but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to get vaccinated. The CDC reported a massive spike in cases of whooping cough in 2012, and rates of infections have remained higher than in decades past because of the recent anti-vaccine movement, according to experts at the National Institutes of Health. Double-check and make sure you got the shot.
“I would recommend that anyone do anything they can to prevent being sick.”
—Bethany P., fourth-year student at the University of Rhode Island
How and when to get it
Like the HPV vaccine and MenACWY, the Tdap vaccine is recommended for 11- and 12-year-olds, but if you didn’t get it as a preteen, you should still get it ASAP, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC. After you’ve had your Tdap vaccine, you’ll need a Td booster shot (to renew your protection against tetanus and diphtheria) every 10 years.
Again, start with your campus health center or current health care provider. You can also check out the local pharmacy or clinic.
All vaccines can have some side effects—usually mild redness or swelling around the site of the shot (Tdap tends to leave you with a sore arm). You might also get a mild headache or flu-like symptoms right after getting a vaccine, so make sure to ask the health care provider giving you the vaccination what to expect. However, all of these vaccines have been through rigorous testing. There’s absolutely no scientific evidence that these vaccines cause diseases or serious side effects (such as autism), according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
It’s important to remember that any small side effects you might experience are nothing compared to the massive, science-backed benefits you’ll get by getting vaccinated. The bottom line: Staying on top of your shots is a super-easy way to boost your health and help protect your community.
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Lizzy Appleby, MSW, youth program manager at Angles reproductive healthcare clinic, Illinois.
Lisa Ipp, MD, associate director of adolescent medicine, Weill Cornell Medicine, New York.
Divya Patel, PhD, assistant professor, Texas Collaborative for Healthy Mothers and Babies (an affiliate of the University of Texas System).
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2017, January 26). Vaccine safety: Examine the evidence. Healthychildren.org. Retrieved from https://www.healthychildren.org/English/safety-prevention/immunizations/Pages/Vaccine-Studies-Examine-the-Evidence.aspx
American Cancer Society. (2016, May 11). What is HPV? HPV and Cancer. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/infectious-agents/hpv/hpv-and-cancer-info.html
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017, July 6). Meningococcal disease. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/meningococcal/index.html
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017, June 7). Community settings as a risk factor. Meningococcal disease. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/meningococcal/about/risk-community.html
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017, May 19). Meningococcal vaccination: What everyone should know. Vaccines and preventable diseases. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd/mening/public/index.html
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017, May 17). Human papillomavirus (HPV) and cancer. HPV and cancer. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/hpv/
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017, May 16). Disease burden of influenza. Influenza (flu). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/disease/burden.htm
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017, March 31). Key facts about the seasonal flu vaccine. Influenza (flu). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/keyfacts.htm
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017, March 23). Frequently asked flu questions 2016–2017 influenza season. Influenza (flu). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/season/flu-season-2016-2017.htm
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016, October 18). Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis) VIS. Vaccine information statements (VISs). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/hcp/vis/vis-statements/tdap.html
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015, September 8). Pertussis outbreak trends. Pertussis (whooping cough). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/pertussis/outbreaks/trends.html
HealthMap Vaccine Finder. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://vaccinefinder.org/
Immunization Action Coalition. (2017, July 7). Vaccine safety. Ask the Experts: Topics. Retrieved from https://www.immunize.org/askexperts/vaccine-safety.asp
National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. (May 2016). Addressing the challenges of influenza vaccination on US college campuses. Retrieved from https://www.nfid.org/publications/reports/college-flu-summit-report.pdf
National Institutes of Health. (2015, March 2). Gardasil 9 vaccine protects against additional HPV types. National Cancer Institute. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.gov/types/cervical/research/gardasil9-prevents-more-HPV-types
National Institutes of Health. (2016, March 22). Resurgence of measles, pertussis fueled by vaccine refusals. NIH Director’s Blog. Retrieved from https://directorsblog.nih.gov/2016/03/22/resurgence-of-measles-pertussis-fueled-by-vaccine-refusals/
Nichol, K. L., D’Heilly, S., & Ehlinger, E. P. (2005). Colds and influenza-like illnesses in university students: Impact on health, academic and work performance, and health care use. Clinical Infectious Diseases, 40(9), 1263–1270. doi: 10.1086/429237
Nichol, K. L., D’Heilly, S., & Ehlinger, E. P. (2008). Influenza vaccination among college and university students impact on influenza like illness, health care use, and impaired school performance. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 162(12), 1113–1118. doi: 10.1001/archpedi.162.12.1113
Nichol, K. L., Tummers, K., Hoyer-Leitzel, A., Marsh, J., et al. (2010). Modeling seasonal influenza outbreak in a closed college campus: Impact of pre-season vaccination, in-season vaccination and holidays/breaks. PLoS One, 5(3). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0009548
Patel, D. A., Zochowski, M., Peterman, S., Dempsey, A. F., et al. (2012). Human papillomavirus vaccine intent and uptake among female college students. Journal of American College Health, 60(2), 151–161. doi: 10.1080/07448481.2011.580028
Poehling, K. A., Blocker, J., Ip, E. H., & Peters, T. R., et al. (2012). 2009–2010 seasonal influenza vaccination coverage among college students from eight universities in North Carolina. Journal of American College Health, 60(8), 541. doi: 10.1080/07 448481.2012.700973
US Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (n.d.). Preventative care benefits for children. Healthcare.gov. Retrieved from https://www.healthcare.gov/preventive-care-children/
US Department of Health and Human Services. (April 2015). College and young adults. Vaccines.gov. Retrieved from https://www.vaccines.gov/who_and_when/college/index.html
US Department of Health and Human Services. (November 2014). Will the affordable care act cover my flu shot? HHS Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). Retrieved from https://www.hhs.gov/answers/affordable-care-act/will-the-aca-cover-my-flu-shot/index.html
US Department of Health and Human Services. (February 2017). Adults schedule. Vaccines.gov. Retrieved from https://www.vaccines.gov/who_and_when/adults/index.html
Yang, Z. J. (2012). Too scared or too capable? Why do college students stay away from the H1N1 vaccine? Risk Analysis, 32(10), 1703–1716. doi: 10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01799.x
—Joshua S., Portland State University, Oregon(*Name changed)
Cold-causing viruses circulate readily in college communities, and they disrupt students’ academics and other activities, so it’s absolutely worth minimizing our exposure to them. We have easy ways to do that. Bear in mind, though, that sometimes, you’re just going to get sick. I often tell students: “If you don’t have time to catch a cold every now and then, you’re probably overcommitted.” Here’s what you need to know to make catching a cold a less frequent event:
How to avoid catching or sharing a cold
- Wash your hands frequently: No other strategy is as effective, says the CDC.
- Train yourself not to touch your nose or eyes unless you’ve just washed your hands; this also helps reduce your risk.
- Stay home the first few days of being sick: Cold viruses are shed most heavily in the first few days of illness.
- When coughing or sneezing, cover your mouth and nose with a strong tissue, or use this handy gadget called a Coughcatcher (see the next slide).
- Do not take antibiotics; they do not prevent or treat colds. With no possible benefit here, the effects of taking antibiotics “for a cold” will be solely negative.
How colds are spread
- Via our own hands: Cold viruses are sneezed, coughed, or breathed into the air and land on surfaces like desks and tables. Viruses can survive for hours on everyday surfaces. When we touch those surfaces, we get the virus on our hands. Those viruses can survive on our skin for two hours. When we touch our eyes or nose, we allow the virus to infect vulnerable cells. This is why frequent, thorough hand washing is so important.
- Via droplets in the air that we inhale: Cold viruses can also be spread directly from person to person through respiratory droplets (microscopic germs that are sneezed, coughed, or breathed into the air).
- Via children, directly or indirectly (sorry, kids): Children are thought to be the reservoirs of colds in communities. The viruses spread from young children to older siblings or adults, and then through school or work communities.
How to treat a cold
- Colds get better without treatment after 5–10 days. Rest up, drink water and other healthy fluids, and try not to spread your virus to others.
- Again, do not use antibiotics. Colds are caused by viruses. Viruses are different from bacteria. Antibiotics are not effective against viral infection, and they have downsides—both for you personally and for the community.
- There is no compelling evidence to suggest that probiotics, zinc, vitamins, face masks, herbal products, or gargling are effective treatments for colds.
What a cold is and how a cold works
- When health care providers and educators talk about the “common cold,” we’re referring to a specific type of illness. It is not the same as influenza (flu), pharyngitis (sore throat), sinusitis etc., though some of the symptoms can overlap.
- A cold is a viral infection. More than 200 different viruses can cause colds, though about half of colds are caused by the rhinovirus.
- When a cold-causing virus enters a cell, it hijacks the cell’s machinery and begins replicating itself, producing millions of copies. This infection triggers an inflammatory response in the body, which generates the characteristic symptoms of colds, like runny nose, nasal congestion, scratchy or sore throat, cough, and sometimes fever (this is more likely in younger people).
- Not everyone develops symptoms every time they are exposed to a cold-causing virus. Children catch more colds than adults, suggesting that the body may develop some immunity to colds over time, though we never become fully immune.
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The flu spreads rapidly among students—and so do myths and misunderstandings about what the flu means for them and how to avoid it. We asked a leading expert on vaccine safety to answer your questions about the flu and the flu vaccine. More than 800 students participated. The questions revealed many false beliefs about the safety and effectiveness of the flu vaccine, the science behind it, and its relevance to students.
Many college students think they know more about the flu vaccine than is actually the case, according to a study published in Risk Analysis (2012). Students’ “knowledge” relies heavily on dubious sources, like social media and anecdotes.
Everyone is at high risk of catching the flu because the influenza virus is so contagious. The flu hurts students’ academic performance and grades. Teens and young adults are disproportionately prone to serious (including life-threatening) flu complications.
Why are young adults at relatively high risk of serious flu complications?
The influenza virus can kill in three ways:
- Directly—it reproduces in the lungs, sometimes leading to pneumonia.
- Indirectly—it sets the scene for a bacterial superinfection, such as Staphylococcus aureus, on top of the pneumonia.
- The influenza virus can cause an overwhelming immune response that lowers blood pressure and leads to a condition similar to sepsis (a blood infection that can cause organ failure). This accounts for the relatively high death rate among otherwise healthy teens and young adults. Essentially, people die at the hands of their own immune system. You get some time to recover from the virus, but if it’s not looking good, you get culled from the herd. From a group perspective, this has benefits.
Expert Paul Offit, MD, professor of vaccinology and professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine
#1. Does the flu shot work?
How effective has the flu vaccine proven to be through empirical research?
- The influenza vaccine as a shot, across all age groups, is 65 percent effective at preventing moderate to severe illness caused by influenza.
- For young, healthy people with stronger immune systems, its effectiveness is higher than 65 percent. For young children, the live attenuated nasal spray is 80—90 percent effective.
- It’s not a perfect vaccine, but if you don’t get it, your protection is 0 percent.
- The influenza virus changes every year, so immunization doesn’t protect you year after year.
- In the last two years we’ve seen the same predominant strains, so the vaccine functions like a booster and the effectiveness has been higher.
With the flu vaccine
At least 65 percent protection
Without the flu vaccine
0 percent protection
#2. Am I at risk?
If I never get the flu, why should I get the vaccine?
Reasons to get vaccinated:
- You might be the person who gets very sick from the flu
Every year more than 200,000 people in the US catch influenza and 20,000 are hospitalized. An influenza pandemic is most dangerous for the very young and very old. Teens and young adults are also at elevated risk of serious complications.Natural infection (also called the wild type) is uncontrollable. The young adults who died in the 1918—19 flu pandemic were overwhelmed by their own vigorous immune response. The vaccine provides a controlled immune response.
- Your immunization protects people who can’t get vaccinated
The US population of 315 million includes 500,000 people who can’t be vaccinated. That’s because they are undergoing chemotherapy or immunosuppressant therapy, or are less than six months old. They rely on herd immunity (the immunization of the population) for protection from disease.
- Everyone, regardless of health status, is susceptible to the influenza virus
If I took your blood and separated the serum and sent it to a lab, the chance that you’re going to have antibodies directed against several influenza viruses is about 100 percent. No one gets to young adulthood without at least a mild influenza infection.
#3. Which flu strain?
Is it true that the flu vaccine is just a guess as to which strain will hit this year, and could be wrong?
- Usually the guess is right on the button.
- The influenza vaccine protects against the four influenza strains considered most likely to predominate in any given year.
- Each year we usually have four predominant circulating strains: one H1N1, one H3N2, and two B types. Scientists developing the vaccine take an educated guess based on the strains circulating in South America, since those strains usually sweep across North America.
- Last year all four of the predominant strains were in the vaccine.
#4. Can the flu shot backfire?
Why do some people get the flu after getting the flu vaccine? Can the vaccine cause the flu?
- The flu shot can’t possibly cause flu, because it’s not a live virus.
- The nasal spray is a live attenuated vaccine, weakened so that it can’t cause infection. Those viruses can’t reproduce at body temperature, survive in the lungs, or cause the flu.
Why some people might believe they’ve caught the flu from the vaccine:
- The vaccine is usually given at the start of the influenza season, when they might be exposed to the virus in any case—e.g., the student coughing next to them in class or at the health center.
- The vaccine takes 7 to 10 days to become fully effective. During that period, they can continue to be exposed to the virus and/or develop symptoms.
- What they’re calling influenza is actually another respiratory virus.
#5. Are there side effects?
How often do adverse effects occur, and are they permanent?
- The flu shot can cause pain and redness at the site and sometimes a low-grade fever.
- The nasal spray can sometimes cause mild upper respiratory symptoms, like sniffles.
- These days even people with severe egg allergies can get the flu vaccine. Vaccines are made in eggs, and in the past they could become contaminated. Now there is so little contamination, that risk has gone.
#6. Could I have natural immunity?
I like to think my body can take care of itself. Can it?
- There are two ways we can become immune to a specific organism:
- Natural infection
- You’re not going to have natural immunity before you’ve been exposed. The vaccine provides the same immunity that’s induced by natural infection without your having to pay the price of natural infection. “Natural” is not always good. Smallpox is natural.
- People who put their faith in “Mother Nature” must have had pretty mean-spirited mothers.
#7. Do healthy habits help?
If I take care of myself by exercising, eating a healthy diet, and hand washing, am I protected against the flu?
- Healthy habits like exercise and good nutrition do not strengthen your immune system or protect you from infection.
- Frequent, thorough hand washing can reduce your exposure to infections that spread via contaminated surfaces. If you’re exposed, hand washing won’t protect you from developing symptoms. And remember, the influenza virus is airborne.
- Your natural immune system can only do so much. Franklin D. Roosevelt was a vigorous, active, healthy, wealthy man who exercised and ate the right food. At age 39 he came into contact with the polio virus and was paralyzed for the rest of his life. If he’d been offered the vaccine, I’m sure that would have been his choice.
- Caveat: Healthy behaviors could in theory provide a limited immune boost via the placebo effect. Feeling good about your healthy lifestyle might help protect you from stress. Stress can raise your blood pressure and affect your immune system.
#8. What about the long term?
I’m curious whether the more times you get the vaccine the less effective it is for preventing the flu. Also, does the flu vaccine allow the virus to mutate and become stronger?
- No. Getting the influenza vaccine every year does not reduce its effectiveness over time.
- You cannot “use up” your immune response. Every day we each make one billion new antibody-producing cells, to add to the “memory cells” from past immunizations. That’s why we don’t die from the germs we’re exposed to routinely. This is also why we can safely handle vaccinations.
- Viruses don’t work like bacteria. The measles vaccine was introduced in 1963, mumps in 1967, rubella in 1969, and polio in 1955. Those viruses haven’t mutated away from the vaccine. To mutate away from the vaccine, the virus would probably have to undergo a series of changes that would be lethal to the virus itself.
- Influenza virus mutation is an ongoing process related to the way the virus replicates. It has nothing to do with the influenza vaccine.
#9. Do we have enough data?
I’ve heard the flu shot is still in the new stages of medicine and we can’t be sure of its safety—or that it’s a ploy to make money for pharmaceutical companies.
- How much more data do you want? We have a population of 300 million people. Every year, two-thirds of the population gets the flu vaccine. We have 60 years of evidence. Vaccines are the safest thing we put into our children.
- The flu vaccine was introduced in 1947. Each year it targets a varying combination of influenza strains. It is manufactured in an identical process each year, and therefore its safety profile doesn’t change.
- Does the vaccine work? Yes. The conspiracy suggestion is a straw man issue. Yes, vaccines are made by a for-profit industry. But the issue is not “Are people making money from vaccines?” The issue is its effectiveness.
#10. What about the other ingredients?
Is it true that the flu shot contains mercury and other ingredients associated with health problems?
- The type of mercury used in vaccines is different from environmental mercury. It is eliminated from the body 10 times more quickly. The amount is trivial—less than you’re exposed to every day, assuming you drink anything made from water. Babies are exposed to more mercury every day in breast milk or formula than they’d ever get from a vaccine.
- When a Congressman says, “I have zero tolerance for mercury!” that’s someone who needs to find another planet to live on.
- Formaldehyde is used to make sure the virus can’t reproduce itself. Formaldehyde is a by-product of human metabolism, and circulates in your bloodstream at levels far greater than you would ever get from the vaccine.
Why students value the flu vaccine
In a recent CampusWell survey, 61 percent said the flu vaccine was either “very important” or “somewhat important” in protecting them from the flu. 1,700 students answered the question.
I’m a nurse. The myth that most are scared of is that if they take the shot then they will get the flu. This is not true. The shot can, however, make you feel a little on the “blah” side.
—Lisa M., second-year student at University of Tennessee Martin
People are getting so mistrustful of medicine that they’re not getting flu shots, increasing everyone else’s risk. Herd immunity is best for everyone.
—Alaine W., second-year student at Moorpark College, California
To think vaccines are all just government scams is uneducated. Doctors and nurses across the world have to get them, and they are taking care of you, the jerk who chose not to get vaccinated. Do everyone a favor and do the smart thing. Vaccinate yourself and your children.
—Emily R., second-year student at Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary, Canada
Propaganda is being circulated by alternative medicine quacks and media sensationalists making bogus claims. Vaccines in general have become a symbol of distrust for modern medicine. It would be sad if it weren’t so ridiculous.
—Eric S., fourth-year student at the College of New Jersey in Ewing Township
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