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Why I get the flu shot every year

For someone with a chronic condition, it’s even more essential to avoid catching this virus

Even though I’ve lived with Type 1 diabetes for more than four decades, I used to skip the annual flu shot. It wasn’t due to a fear of needles. I’ve administered countless daily insulin injections and fingersticks to check blood glucose levels. Refusing the flu vaccine was one small way to say no to yet another puncture.

But, I always made sure my two young children received their annual flu vaccines every fall. They were in school, after all, and more likely to pick up illness from their peers. Meanwhile, I worked from home and rarely interacted with other people.

One year, my 10-year-old asked me if I got a flu shot. He bitterly protested the jab each year, and figured if he had to deal with his discomfort, then so should I—regardless of whatever other injections I had to endure. He had a point, and it wasn’t just at the tip of a needle.

Have a chronic illness? You can get sicker from the flu

From that flu season on, I agreed to get a flu shot at my annual primary care physician’s visit. As it turns out, people with all sorts of chronic illness should get annual flu shots, including those living with:

  • Diabetes
  • Asthma
  • Heart, lung, and/or kidney issues
  • Obesity
  • Neurodevelopmental issues such as muscular dystrophy
  • Spastic conditions including cerebral palsy
  • Weakened immune systems due to HIV, AIDS, or long-haul COVID

These types of health issues make you more likely to experience severe symptoms or complications from the flu. In other words, I had been missing out on an immunization that I needed even more than others. 

Why should you get a flu shot every year?

The flu comes from exposure to a contagious virus called influenza that spreads easily from person to person. While the flu can be mild for some, it can kill others. Getting a flu shot can help you either avoid getting sick with the flu or minimize the virus if you do get sick. When you’re vaccinated, you’ll recover in a shorter amount of time, your symptoms will be more mild, and you’re less likely to experience complications from the illness. 

“Having a chronic health condition simply elevates your risk of having a complicated response if you come down with the flu and the complications from the infection,” says Greg Poland, MD, a professor of medicine and infectious disease and the director of the Vaccine Research Group at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “It can also exacerbate the underlying chronic disease.” 

People with diabetes, for example, may not eat or hydrate properly if they are severely sick with the flu. People with chronic lung disease who already have trouble breathing can get sicker if they develop bronchitis or pneumonia from having the flu. 

But, chronic illness isn’t the only condition that predisposes you to complications from the flu. The following groups are also high risk:

  • Adults ages 65 and older
  • Very young children
  • Pregnant women
  • People with disabilities

When people in these groups get the flu shot every year, they are less likely to be hospitalized or die from the infection. 

Every year several different strains of influenza circulate during flu season, which in the U.S., begins in early fall and typical peaks in December through February, according to the CDC. The flu shot protects you against the strains that experts believe will be most prevalent.

Even if you catch a different flu, vaccinated “people won’t die from those strains,” Dr. Poland says. The vaccine is protective, even against other forms—and, your symptoms will be milder.

Be prepared for the upcoming flu season

It’s more important than ever to get a flu shot this season. Due to the 2020 pandemic, most people remained at home, wore masks, and sanitized hands regularly. As a result, there were only about 2,400 flu cases in 2020, compared to approximately 35.5 million in the 2018-2019 flu season. With kids potentially returning to school in the fall of 2021—potentially without wearing masks and socially distancing the way they did the year before—it is highly likely that flu cases will skyrocket for the coming flu season.

Still worried? Remember this: “Because the injected flu vaccination is not live, it is impossible to get the flu from it,” explains Noha Polack, MD, FAAP, the lead physician at Progressive Pediatrics in Union City, New Jersey. “If you get a mild cough or a runny nose, that’s a positive sign that your body is being protective against the flu virus.”

Side effects or arm pain, aside—my kids and I will do what we have to do to get our flu shots—this year and every year. What’s one more jab, after all?