Should I Get a Flu Shot?

October 2, 2014
Amber Bauer, ASCO staff

Let’s face it—nobody ever really wants to get a shot. “I don’t have the time.” “I hate needles.” “Will it actually do me any good anyway?” There are any number of reasons why we put off and even avoid getting our flu shot, which could be why fewer than half of Americans got one in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, if you are living with cancer, are a cancer survivor, or have a friend or family member going through treatment, medical experts agree there are a number of good reasons why getting a flu shot should be at the top of your to-do list in the coming weeks.

Cancer and cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and bone marrow/stem cell transplantation, weaken the immune system, which protects the body from infection and disease. Although having or surviving cancer doesn’t mean you are more likely to get the flu, it does mean you have a higher chance of getting sicker from the flu and developing complications, which can lead to hospitalization or rarely, death.

By getting a flu shot before flu season starts (usually in October) you help train your immune system to recognize and destroy flu viruses before they can cause serious disease and be passed on to others.  Sometimes, people with cancer should not receive a flu shot, though, so talk with your doctor before getting vaccinated.

Because viruses are constantly changing, new strains of the flu virus usually appear every year. This means that a new vaccine is created each year to protect against the flu viruses experts predict will be the most common during the upcoming season. The CDC estimates that a little more than half of the flu shots given during the 2014-2015 flu season will be trivalent, which means they will provide protection against three viruses (two influenza A viruses and one influenza B virus). The rest will be quadrivalent vaccines, which provide protection against four viruses (two influenza A viruses and two influenza B viruses).

Having an additional B virus in the vaccine aims to give people broader protection against the flu; however, the CDC does not recommend one over the other. On its website, the CDC says: “Don’t delay getting a flu vaccine if you cannot locate a quadrivalent vaccine. The important thing is to get vaccinated against influenza.”

There are four ways you can be vaccinated:

Regular flu shot. The flu shot is injected into the muscle of the arm with a needle. It contains a virus that is not alive, which means you cannot get sick from the shot.

Intradermal flu shot. This type of flu shot is injected into the skin (intradermal) rather than the muscle. It uses a much smaller needle than the regular flu shot. The vaccine can be given to adults between the ages of 18 and 64.

High-dose flu shot. This is a flu vaccine specifically for people ages 65 and older. Because the immune system gets weaker with age, this vaccine is designed to better protect older people from the flu.

Nasal spray. The nasal spray contains a weakened form of a live virus that is squirted into the nose, so it should only be given to people between the ages of 2 and 49 who are not pregnant and considered to be in good health. If you are having cancer treatment or have a history of cancer, you should not use the nasal spray. If your immune system is particularly weakened, doctors may recommend that caregivers and other family members also avoid having the spray.

You can usually get a flu shot at a doctor’s office, urgent care clinic, health department, or pharmacy.  Some schools, college health centers, and employers also provide flu shots. You can usually get a flu shot at a doctor’s office, urgent care clinic, health department, or pharmacy. Some schools, college health centers, and employers also provide flu shots. If you need help locating a place to get a flu shot near your home or work, check out the CDC’s HealthMap Vaccine Finder.  

Scheduling your flu shot is important if you are starting or currently receiving cancer treatment. Many doctors recommend that if you are about to start cancer treatment that could affect your immune system, it is usually best to get a flu shot before treatment begins. If you are already undergoing treatment, research shows you will usually get the best response to the vaccine if you get the shot when your blood cell counts are near normal, not when they are at their lowest (usually seven to 14 days after treatment). Talk with your doctor for more information about timing the flu shot to your specific treatment plan.