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General Medical Questions
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Question : What side effects might I have from the flu shot, and how long will they last?
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The Trusted Source
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Howard LeWine, M.D.

Anthony L. Komaroff, M.D., is professor of medicine and editor-in-chief of Harvard Health Publications at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Komaroff also is senior physician and was formerly director of the Division of General Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital. Dr. Komaroff has served on various advisory committees to the federal government, and is an elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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November 13, 2013
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Every treatment of every type has side effects.  It’s true of vaccines, medicines, devices (like an artificial heart valve) and procedures (like an angioplasty and stent).

So every time your doctor proposes a treatment of any kind you should ask two questions:

  1. Are the benefits greater than the risks? 
  2. How likely and how severe are the side effects?

There are two types of vaccine used to prevent the flu: one is given as an injection (the “flu shot” you asked about). The other is given as a nasal spray. The flu shot is the used most often.

It’s not uncommon to feel some soreness, redness or swelling in the area where you had the shot. It lasts 1-2 days. It’s rarer, but, you may have a brief fever, feel achy all over, have a headache or feel tired for 1-2 days.

About one in every million flu shots leads to a severe side effect.  The best known is a disease that affects the nerves and brain, called Guillain-Barré syndrome.

But the chance of severe complications from getting the flu is far higher than the chance of complications from the flu shot. The flu can lead to pneumonia and heart attacks. It can also lead to conditions of the nerves and brain, including Guillain-Barré syndrome.  In fact, this illness is more likely to happen after the flu than after a flu shot.

Lots of people think of the flu as being like the common cold — a few days of sneezing.  In fact, the flu causes much more serious symptoms. It can even be fatal. Each year in the U.S., 20,000 to 40,000 people die from the flu.

Some people should avoid flu shots

  • People who have severe, life-threatening allergies, particularly allergies to eggs should not get the standard flu shot. They should request the vaccine not made using eggs.
  • People who have had Guillain-Barré syndrome in the past.

So, for almost everyone, it’s a no-brainer: the benefits of getting a flu shot far outweigh the risks.

 

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