Why the Flu Shot Doesn’t Always Work

Q. Even though I took the flu shot last fall, I came down with a dreadful case of it earlier this year. I was sick for a week in bed and needed several more weeks to regain my energy and get through a typical day. How is it that the flu vaccine sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t?

A. Dr. Phil Santangelo, an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, is actively researching viruses and vaccines in his laboratory. According to him, “The current flu vaccine contains three different strains of the virus. If you were infected with a strain that differs from the actual vaccine, you would’ve gotten sick.” Santangelo says this is probably what happened, since the annual flu vaccines are formulated on educated guesses and the predictions are challenging. He said, “If you get sick with a strain close to what is in the vaccine, the impact of the virus is mitigated and you get less sick. That’s why we would love to have a universal flu vaccine. In my lab and others in the world, there is good research to develop this.” Currently, such a universal immunization isn’t available. Because those in chronic pain have vulnerable immune systems, most physicians recommend a flu shot, and Santangelo suggests asking your physician to help decide whether you should get one. Most physicians continue to endorse the shot as a frontline strategy for health and well-being.

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Our expert: Jackson Rainer is a board-certified clinical psychologist who practices with the Care and Counseling Center in Decatur, Georgia, helping people living with chronic illnesses. He consults with a variety of experts to answer a selection of readers’ questions in each issue of Pain-Free Living.

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