Debunking Common Flu and Flu Vaccine Myths

Misconceptions may keep people from getting vaccinated for the flu

The recent rise of misinformation about diseases, illnesses, possible treatments and vaccines has caused some people to make some potentially risky decisions about their health. So it shouldn’t be surprising that a number of influenza and flu vaccine myths exist.

A survey of 1,005 adults taken by the National Foundation for Infectious Disease in August 2022 uncovered several beliefs that people hold about influenza and flu vaccines—some of which are true, but many of which are not.

For example, 69% of those who were surveyed said they believe that annual flu shots are the best way to prevent hospitalizations and deaths related to influenza. Several studies have confirmed this: The flu shot is the best way to prevent getting sick with flu, developing serious illness from the flu or developing complications from it.

However, those who said they did not plan to get a flu vaccine this season based their decision on certain misconceptions about influenza or flu shots. Read on about these common myths (and truths!)—if you know someone who believes them, share what you have learned. If it helps them understand the value of flu vaccination, you may help them avoid getting sick, passing the flu along to others, or suffering from serious complications of the flu. 

Common Flu and Flu Vaccine Myths 

Myth #1: The flu shot doesn't work.

Truth: The effectiveness of flu vaccines can vary from season to season. Each year, research is done to show which strains of influenza are likely to be in high circulation that season. Flu vaccines are then made to protect against 4 of those flu viruses: two influenza A strains and two influenza B viruses.

If there is a good “match” between the flu vaccine and circulating flu viruses, vaccines can reduce flu illness risk between 40% and 60% protection against flu illnesses and complications. But even if there isn’t a good match between the flu vaccine and circulating flu virus strains, being vaccinated can still provide protection from serious complications of the flu, such as severe illness, hospitalizations and deaths. And getting your flu shot can help you protect other people whose immune systems are weaker, causing a higher risk of serious illness from the flu.

Myth #2: The flu shot can cause severe side effects.

Truth: Flu vaccination has a good safety record. Extensive research has demonstrated the safety of flu vaccines, too. Plus, hundreds of millions of people in the United States have safely received one of the various types of flu vaccines available each year.

Flu vaccines may cause side effects in different people, just as other medical products might do. Most of these side effects are mild and last no more than a few days. Some common side effects from flu vaccines include, fever, headache, muscle aches and nausea. If you have a flu shot instead of a nasal spray, you could have soreness, redness or swelling on the place you received the flu shot.

Very rarely, some people may develop Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS), a rare medical disorder that involves nerve damage in which the immune system attacks the peripheral nerves (such as in the arms and legs). This could happen in the days or weeks following a vaccination for the flu. People may also develop GBS after they have the flu or other infections. Some studies have estimated that out of 1 million people who receive a flu shot, GBS may occur in 1 to 2 people. Other studies have not found any link between flu shots and GBS. Nasal spray vaccination has not been linked to GBS.

If you have concerns about side effects or whether a particular flu vaccine is right for you, speak with your healthcare provider.

Myth #3: I don’t catch the flu, so I don’t need a flu shot.

Truth: Anyone can catch influenza—including healthy people. Serious complications can occur from influenza at any age, although certain people are at higher risk. These include older people, pregnant people, children younger than 5 years old, and people with certain conditions such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone who is aged 6 months and older get a flu vaccine, with few exceptions, each year. Getting a flu vaccine each year can help prevent the spread of influenza and serious flu-related illnesses to people who are at higher risk.

Myth #4: The flu shot gives you the flu.

Truth: Flu shots can be made in different ways, with an inactivated flu virus or with a single protein from the flu virus—but either way, they can’t give you influenza.

Flu vaccines also come in the form of a nasal spray, which can be used in healthy people aged 2 through 49 years old who aren’t pregnant. These nasal spray vaccines are made with attenuated or weakened live flu viruses, which cannot cause infection.

Myth #5: The flu is not a serious illness.

Truth: Influenza can cause mild to severe illness. Some people are at higher risk of serious complications, but even healthy people of any age can have serious problems due to the flu. You can get sick enough from the flu that you might have to miss work or school. Some people get sick enough that they have to be hospitalized, and some people die from the flu.

Each year, the CDC tracks the burden of flu on the U.S. population. This includes estimates on how many people get the flu, the numbers of doctor visits due to the flu, and hospitalizations and deaths that occur related to the flu. As of April 8, 2023, the CDC estimates that from October 1, 2022 through April 8, 2023, flu affected thousands, even millions of Americans:

  • 26 million ­— 51 million had influenza
  • 12 million — 24 million had a medical visit related to the flu
  • 290,000 — 630,000 were hospitalized due to the flu
  • 19,000 — 56,000 died from flu-related illness

The CDC also uses a model to estimate how many flu-related illnesses, medical visits, hospitalizations and deaths are prevented by flu vaccinations, too. The most recent estimates are available for the 2021-2022 flu season, which was considered to be mild in severity. However, the estimates of how effective vaccination can be in preventing illness and serious complications are important to note. In that flu season, flu vaccinations prevented:

  • 1.8 million flu-related illnesses
  • 1 million medical visits
  • 22,000 hospitalizations
  • 1,000 deaths

These numbers all show how serious the flu can be—and how important it is to get your flu vaccine every year.

Read the Flu Vaccine FAQ to learn more about flu vaccines and vaccination