No, the Flu Shot Can't Give You the Flu. Here's Why You Think It Can

There are a lot of myths that go around during cold and flu season, but this is perhaps the most popular: The flu shot actually gives you the flu. We're here to tell you once and for all: it doesn't, it won't, and it can't. If you feel yourself getting sick a short while after getting a flu shot, it's not the shot that did it — even if quirks of human psychology make it tempting to think it did.

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What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger

Don't believe us? Take it from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "No, a flu shot cannot cause flu illness." Most people know that vaccines work by exposing the body to some form of the bug you're protecting against, and that's where the misconception may come from. It's true that early vaccines contained the real virus — the first smallpox vaccine involved exposing people to actual pus from a boil, after all — but vaccines have come a very long way since then.

The flu vaccine you get at the doctor's office today comes in one of several types. The injection contains either an inactivated form of the virus, which can't make you sick, or no flu virus at all. The nasal spray does contain live flu virus, but the virus is weakened so that it can't cause flu either. There have been randomized, blinded studies that gave some people flu shots and some people salt-water shots, and the only difference between the two groups was that those with the flu shots experienced a bit of tenderness in the arm that got the shot. According to the CDC, "There were no differences in terms of body aches, fever, cough, runny nose or sore throat."

Correlation, Meet Causation

So why do we all know somebody who swears they got sick right after getting a flu shot? Correlation. Most people get their flu shot during flu season, which means they could be exposed to the flu at any time. It takes the flu shot two weeks to fully protect you from the virus, but only 1–4 days for the influenza virus to start showing symptoms. If you get sick, you'll naturally think about what you did to catch the virus, and that flu shot may be at the front of your mind. But correlation does not imply causation; in other words, just because one thing happens around the same time as another thing doesn't mean that one caused the other.

Of course, this is all assuming it's actual influenza that you caught. The flu vaccine doesn't protect against the common cold, bronchitis, or stomach flu—and it doesn't cause those things, either. Those illnesses are also common during flu season, so any symptoms you may feel after you get a flu shot could be from coming down with one of them. But one thing is for certain: Your symptoms didn't come from the flu shot, so don't be afraid to get yours. It'll go far in protecting you from a serious illness, and will help protect those at risk around you who can't be vaccinated.

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You probably don't know anyone who's died from the flu these days, thank goodness. But in the early 20th century, things were different. Find out how in "The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History" by John M. Barry. The audiobook is free with a trial of Audible. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer April 8, 2017

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