- Doctors recommend that your best line of defense against the flu each year is to get a flu vaccine.
- People who should not get a standard flu shot include those with deadly allergies to egg proteins, but there are alternative flu vaccines available.
- You can still get infected with the flu after receiving your flu shot. That’s why it’s important to also wash your hands regularly, since the flu virus can survive for several hours on an infected surface.
- This article was reviewed by Tania Elliott, MD, who specializes in infectious diseases related to allergies and immunology for internal medicine at NYU Langone Health.
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Thankfully, there are preventive measures you can take to help protect you and your loved ones from the influenza virus, the most effective of which is the flu vaccine.
Getting the flu shot is your best line of defense
“Without a doubt, getting vaccinated with a seasonal flu shot is the best way to prevent the flu,” says Dr. Phil Mitchel, MD, MS, the national medical director of DispatchHealth. “You cannot get the flu from the vaccine. You do not get sick from the vaccine. The vaccine helps prevent the flu in many, many cases – period.”
The vaccine can take at least two weeks to take effect and provide protection from the flu virus. According to the CDC, almost everyone over 6 months of age should aim to get the flu vaccine each year by the end of October before flu season ramps up. And, yes, you need to get vaccinated annually because the flu virus changes each year, and so does the vaccine.
Who should not get the flu vaccine?
Few people should avoid the flu vaccine.
“It is very rare that a doctor would not recommend that someone get a flu shot,” says Brian Labus, who investigates the flu as an assistant professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas’ School of Public Health.
“The greatest concern is for people who have severe, life-threatening allergies to any of the components in a vaccine,” Labus says. “Allergies severe enough to prevent you from getting the flu vaccine are quite rare.”
The flu vaccine contains a small amount of egg protein, called ovalbumin, but since the amount is so small, doctors say that people with a sensitivity to eggs or a mild allergy can still get the standard flu shot.
However, if you have a severe, life-threatening allergy to eggs, you should be careful. In that case, doctors recommend that you get vaccinated in a medical setting such as a hospital or physician’s office. That way, a medical professional is nearby and can provide immediate aid in the rare case you suffer from a bad reaction.
There are also options of egg-free vaccines:
- Flucelvax Quadrivalent, is an FDA-approved cell-based flu vaccine, meaning it is grown in cultured mammal cells rather than in hen’s eggs. So it contains no egg protein.
- Flublok Quadrivalent is a recombinant vaccine, meaning it is produced without the use of eggs. It is licensed by the FDA for use in adults, ages 18 and older.
Before opting for either of these alternative options, speak with a doctor for more information.
In the end, a reaction to the vaccine is rare. The CDC reports that 1.31 per 1 million vaccine doses result in a serious allergic reaction called anaphylaxis from a component of the vaccine, such as a preservative. But generally, the flu itself is much more likely to cause adverse side effects than the vaccine.
For increased safety, wash your hands
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Flu shot aside, it’s important to wash your hands with soap and water – especially before you eat or touch your face. If soap and water aren’t handy, Labus recommends using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
The flu virus can live on surfaces for several hours after contact, so be especially mindful to wash your hands if you work in high-traffic areas such as daycares, schools, or offices. Or if you take public transportation.
“Flu is spread from person to person,” Labus says. “So any place you are around sick people presents an opportunity for you to be exposed.”
And while you can easily contract the virus by touching an infected surface, the most common way you can get it is just by being around someone who is contagious, Mitchel says. “Most episodes of infection occur with close proximity to someone and with airborne droplets.” So, sick individuals should stay home or, at the very least, cover their nose and mouth when sneezing.
As for other popular methods of prevention like neti pots, vitamin C, or the mineral zinc, there is not enough evidence, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, that these can actually help protect you against the flu.
Doctors recommend other significant steps you can take to prevent getting the flu are to maintain good habits – think exercise, nutrition, sleep, stress management – and to drink plenty of fluids. If you keep your body healthy and well-nourished, your immune system has a better chance of fending off the virus.
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