What Do You Need to Know About the Flu Shot?

Dr. Tom Talbot, Chief Epidemiologist for Vanderbilt University Medical Center, speaks with Tanicia Haynes from Occupational Health about the importance of the flu shot and common misconceptions associated with the vaccination. ​

Begin Transcript

Tanicia Haynes: Welcome to this edition of the Vanderbilt Health and Wellness Wellcast. I am Tanicia Haynes with Occupational Health. This month we will be discussing flu shots with Dr. Tom Talbot, the Chief Hospital Epidemiologist with the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

Dr. Tom Talbot: Sure.

Tanicia Haynes: To start, why is it important to get a flu shot?

Dr. Tom Talbot: There are several reasons why it is important to get a flu shot. One is to keep yourself healthy from getting influenza infection, but two … and one of the main reasons why we ask our healthcare workers to get vaccinated is we don’t want to expose our contacts to influenza, either our household loved ones or our patients that we care for. Many of those individuals can’t get a vaccine or may not have as strong of a response to the vaccine. So, by getting vaccinated ourselves, you kind of have this protective cocoon, so to speak, so that the flu doesn’t spread around in that population. So, it is really important to help, both for ourselves and especially for our contacts.

Tanicia Haynes: What you are saying is it is important to get the flu shot every season. Sometimes we get questions about the safety of the flu shot during pregnancy. Could you tell us a little bit about whether the flu shot is recommended for pregnant women?

Dr. Tom Talbot: Sure. This is a topic of great interest, obviously, and the CDC has done a lot of great studies into this and have actually found that the risk of getting influenza to the fetus is far greater than the risk from the shot. So, they actually now recommend, regardless of your trimester, to get vaccinated because influenza infection could be very detrimental to the baby and to the mom, too. So, you may recall a couple of years ago when we had the swine flu pandemic, one of the groups that really got sick were pregnant women, too. So, sometimes they can actually get fairly sick themselves. So, it is important to get the vaccine for sure.

Tanicia Haynes: So, thinking about flu infections, I am sure you’ve heard many times people that say, “Well, I got the flu shot last year and I got the flu for the first time after I got the flu shot.” Is there any validity to that?

Dr. Tom Talbot: We hear that all the time. It is important to remember that the flu shot is killed virus. It cannot give you the flu. But think about what happens and when we are getting our flu shot. It is early winter. It is when other things like to spread. So, there are a lot of other respiratory viruses that can be around, and the flu shot won’t protect you against those. We have also heard folks that say, “No, no, no – my doctor tested me and I got the flu after the flu shot.” You also have to remember it takes several weeks before you get the protection from the flu shot. So, you could get the flu shot today and get exposed in a couple of days to influenza and still get infected because your body hasn’t had a chance to get protected yet. So, we hear that a lot, but it cannot give you the flu. It absolutely cannot give you influenza.

Tanicia Haynes: So, if I get the flu shot this season, is it a guarantee that I won’t catch the flu?

Dr. Tom Talbot: Absolutely not a guarantee. I think, from a vaccine standpoint, the flu vaccine is moderate; the best data suggests about 60% effective … now, if you have weakened immune system or if you are older adults, maybe less; if you are a healthy adult, maybe higher. So, it is really important that you take all the other precautions to prevent influenza. So, for example, in the hospital, we have to make sure that we identify patients that might be infected and put them in isolation. We have to make sure we wash our hands. We have to make sure it is really important that we don’t come to work if we’ve got fever and a respiratory illness, and if we come to work with the sniffles, we need to wear a mask because we can still spread to others and still might get influenza. So, it is not an absolute perfect wall against infection, but it is pretty good. But you have to take these other precautions, too.

Tanicia Haynes: Are there any situations or circumstances when a person should NOT get a flu shot?

Dr. Tom Talbot: Good question. We usually advise to not get the flu shot in the event that you have an acute illness, fever or feel sick. That is really mainly to say that we won’t be able to tease out any reaction from the vaccine. We don’t think it is going to make your illness worse. You probably just don’t feel well and you don’t want to get the vaccine at that point. There are a few individuals who had medical reasons why they can’t get the vaccine, mainly allergic response or other reactions. For those individuals, that is why it is important that other people get vaccinated, to protect them as well. In fact, for our employee program, if you have one of these medical contraindications, you file an exemption and we review those. So, we do have a process to get those reviewed. So, there is a very few instances when you wouldn’t get the flu shot, but it is generally a very safe, very effective vaccine and something that really, we need to do to protect ourselves and especially our patients.

Tanicia Haynes: Well, thank you, Dr. Talbot, for speaking with us about the flu shot and including us in on all the insides that you know about disease and disease prevention. We really appreciate you again speaking with us.

Dr. Tom Talbot: You’re welcome.

Tanicia Haynes: Thanks for listening. Please feel free to leave us any comments on this Wellcast on the form at the bottom of this page. If you have a story suggestion, please email it to us at health.wellness@vanderbilt.edu, or you can use the “Contact Us” page on our website at healthandwellness.vanderbilt.edu.