How to Protect Yourself From the Flu During Cancer Treatment

September 6, 2018
Nicole Van Hoey, PharmD

Flu season begins in October, peaks during the winter, and can linger through May. The flu vaccine works best when you get it early in the season, but getting it any time is better than not at all. It is normal to have some achiness after the shot while your body develops its response. In about 2 weeks, you will be protected for the rest of the flu season. Even if the flu season’s virus differs from the ones used for the vaccine, protection can ease symptoms.

Flu symptoms are worse than cold symptoms. The flu often starts suddenly with chills, aches, headache, cough, and fever. These are less common with a cold, which usually comes on slowly with sneezing, sore throat, and stuffy nose.

Who needs the flu vaccine?

Most people can benefit from receiving the flu vaccine, whether or not they have an existing health condition. It is generally recommended that nearly all people who are at higher risk of developing complications of the flu—and their friends and family—should receive a flu vaccine.share on twitter This includes people with cancer. Some serious complications of the flu include:

  • Dehydration, sometimes requiring hospital care

  • Bronchitis or pneumonia

  • Worsened lung and heart conditions, like asthma or congestive heart failure

Although most cancers do not increase the risk of getting the flu, cancer treatment can weaken the immune system, which makes developing complications more likely. Talk with your doctor about when to receive your vaccine. During cancer treatment, you may need to receive the flu shot at specific times:

  • Radiation therapy and long-term steroids can decrease the body’s immune response, so your doctor can help decide when the flu shot will give you the most protection.

  • Transplantation lowers the number of immune cells in the body that can defend against the flu, so your doctor may recommend waiting 4 to 6 months after the transplant to get a flu shot.

  • During chemotherapy, vaccination is recommended anytime, but it may be best between cycles or 2 weeks before treatment starts.

  • Immunotherapy uses the body’s immune cells to fight cancer. If you are receiving immunotherapy, ask your doctor about how to protect yourself against the flu.

What vaccine to get and where

Almost every type of flu vaccine is safe for people with cancer. Each vaccine protects against 3 common virus strains: H1N1, influenza A, and influenza B. Most flu vaccines are a shot given into the arm muscle, and they contain only dead virus parts. You cannot get the flu from a shot. FluMist is a nasal spray with live virus parts and should not be used in people with cancer.

Finding flu shots is easier than ever. Doctor’s offices, hospitals, and clinics provide the vaccine, sometimes during community vaccination days. Pharmacists in retail stores can give you a flu shot with or without insurance coverage. Find nearby locations online. (Please note: this link takes you to another, independent website.)

With some early planning, you can avoid the flu and its complications, even while you are being treated for cancer.