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HomeHealth EducationComplete Guide to Flu Vaccines

Complete Guide to Flu Vaccines

According to the Centers for Disease Control, flu viruses or influenza have accounted for 9.4 to 41 million illnesses in the U.S. every year since 2010. The National Institutes of Health reports that it results in 31.4 million outpatient visits and more than 200,000 hospitalizations each year.

The best weapon we have against the flu is to get a flu vaccine each year before flu season begins. The CDC recommends everyone older than 6 months get vaccinated every year.

Research into the first flu vaccines began during the 1918 flu pandemic, but it wasn’t until 1945 that the first flu vaccine was licensed for wide use in the U.S.

Path to improved health

Flu vaccines, or flu shots, protect against the top viruses that researchers think will be the most common during that year’s flu season. While most are given in the arm using a needle, there are also nasal spray flu vaccines available.

Most flu vaccines contain a form of the flu virus that can be either dead or alive (but weakened). They also may contain egg or animal protein, preservatives (to prevent them from spoiling), stabilizers (to keep them from losing strength over time) and sometimes very low amounts of antibiotics (to prevent contamination during production).

Some different types of influenza vaccines available include:

  • Standard-dose flu shots. These are made by growing the flu virus in an egg. They are available in different brands and are most often given with a needle.
  • Cell-based flu shots. These are made by growing the virus in a cell culture. This means the cells are grown in a laboratory environment. This vaccine is completely egg-free.
  • Recombinant flu shots. This means the vaccine is made without using a virus or eggs. It has three times the antigen (the part that helps your body build protection against the virus) and can help create a stronger immune response in your body.
  • Egg-based high dose flu shots. These are for use in people 65 and older. They have four times the antigen as a regular flu shot.
  • Egg-based adjuvanted flu shot. An adjuvant is an ingredient that helps create a stronger immune response in your body. These are also for people 65 and older.

You should ask your doctor which type of flu vaccine is best for you.

Things to consider

Everyone who is 6 months and older should get a flu vaccine every flu season. Getting a flu vaccine along with another vaccine at the same visit is recommended if you are eligible and if the timing for each vaccine is right. Vaccines can prevent you from getting sick and lower the chance of serious illness if you do get sick. It can also lower the risk of having to be hospitalized from the flu.

There are some side effects to the flu shot, but they are usually very mild. The most common side effects are:

  • Soreness, redness and/or swelling where the shot was given
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Muscle aches and fatigue

These side effects will usually go away on their own after a few days. If they do not, talk to your doctor.

People who have severe, life-threatening allergies to ingredients in flu shots should not get one. This might include gelatin or antibiotics. If you have had a strong allergic reaction to a flu shot in the past, talk with your doctor before getting another shot.

For pregnant women, the flu vaccine can help protect both you and your baby and can keep them from getting sick in the first few months after they are born. Flu shots can also lower the risk of severe, life-threatening flu in children by 75%.

Getting a flu vaccine can also protect people around you who are more likely to get sick, like babies, young children, and older people with existing medical conditions. If you do have an existing health condition, please talk to your doctor before getting a flu shot.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Do I need to get a flu vaccine?
  • Which flu vaccine is right for me?
  • How old do my children have to be before they can get a flu vaccine?
  • Are there any risks involved with a flu vaccine?
  • What are the side effects of getting a flu vaccine?
  • Why do I need a flu vaccine every year?
  • When should I get my flu vaccine?


The Centers for Disease Control: Seasonal Flu Vaccines

Disease Burden of Flu | CDC Find Flu Vaccines


This content is supported by an unrestricted grant from AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals LP.


Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians

This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.



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