Can You Get the Flu From a Flu Shot?

Some people worry about getting a flu shot because they are afraid they will get sick from the vaccine. Rest assured, it is not possible to get influenza (the flu) from the flu shot. It does not contain intact viruses that can cause infection. It is possible that you might not feel well after you get a flu shot, but that may be for any of several other reasons.

What the Flu Vaccine Does

The goal of an influenza vaccine is to expose your immune system to viral proteins. This may sound like exactly what you are hoping to avoid, but these proteins serve as antigens—substances your immune system will form defensive antibodies to combat.

When you are next exposed to an influenza virus (say, an infected person sneezes near you), your body will be ready to make antibodies that will prevent you from being infected yourself. The antibodies latch onto the virus and inactivate it.

There are a few different flu vaccination options. While formulated differently, they all work to achieve this result. And despite being derived from the influenza virus itself, they do this without making you sick:

  • The injected flu vaccine (the flu shot) is made from influenza virus grown in a culture medium (eggs or a cell line). The virus is then killed and purified before it is made into the vaccine that you receive. This is an inactivated vaccine, meaning no infective virus remains.
  • There is also a recombinant flu vaccine that isolates the gene that makes viral protein antigen and allows the manufacturer to make just that protein for the vaccine, rather than the virus itself. This is purified and there is no risk of being infected with the influenza virus.
  • The nasal spray flu vaccine is made with a live but weakened influenza virus (called a live attenuated virus). While it contains a live virus, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ensures that it is safe. However, there are age and health restrictions as to who should receive it because safety and effectiveness have not been established for those groups. These include children under age 2, adults 50 and older, those who are pregnant, and people with weakened immune systems.

Flu vaccines cannot give a healthy person the flu; rather they help the body produce an immune response without contracting an infection.

Why You May Feel Sick After Getting the Flu Vaccine

While the flu vaccine cannot give you the flu, it can have mild side effects that mimic influenza. This stems from your body producing the desired immune response.

These side effects usually occur soon after the vaccine is administered and last one to two days. Both the injected flu vaccine and the nasal flu vaccine may produce:

  • Soreness, redness or pain at the injection site
  • Low-grade fever
  • Body aches
  • Low-grade headache
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue

In addition, the nasal spray flu vaccine may cause cold-like symptoms as the weakened virus infects the nasal cells to trigger the immune reaction. Children may experience a runny nose and wheezing. Adults may have a runny nose, sore throat, and cough.

In randomized, blinded studies, no difference in side effects were seen between those who received the flu vaccine and those who got a saltwater shot, other than more soreness and redness at the injection site. Those getting a saltwater shot were just as likely to note body aches, fever, cough, runny nose, or sore throat as those getting a flu shot.

You Really Are Sick—But With Something Else

Remember, too, that the flu shot only protects you from influenza—not other infections like the common cold, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and other viruses that may cause flu-like symptoms. Adults typically catch two to four colds per year, and young children will get six to eight.

You Have an Unrelated Case of the Flu

The vaccine can take up to two weeks to become effective after you receive it. If you come down with the flu in that period, it's likely that you were already exposed to the virus before receiving your shot. You didn't get the flu from the shot.

As well, the strains of flu included in the flu shot vary from year to year. Unfortunately, it is particularly prone to change, with new strains appearing often. Scientists work to target the strains that will be the most prevalent that season so that the vaccination can be tailored accordingly. Despite their best efforts, they may sometimes get it wrong.

A Word From Verywell

Everyone wants to do what they can to stay well. But avoiding the flu vaccine because you are concerned that it will make you sick is not only unnecessary, but potentially dangerous.

The annual influenza vaccine is recommended for everyone over the age of 6 months. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that the flu vaccine prevented 6.2 million illnesses and saved 5,700 lives in the 2017 to 2018 flu season. Still, 45 million Americans were sickened by the flu that year and 61,000 died. That number could have been greatly reduced if more people got the flu vaccine.

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