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The Flu Shot and MS: Should You or Shouldn’t You?

Updated on: December 1st, 2015 by Kristin Zimmermann
Posted on: November 7th, 2014 by MS HOPE Staff
Category: About MS, Health News, Living a Healthy Life, Managing MS, MS Resources

person filling a syringe with vaccineAh, flu season. Temperatures are dropping, windows are closing, and nasty germs are happily multiplying, getting ready to knock us out with sore throats, aching bones, and sinus headaches. That flu shot is sounding pretty good, but is it worth it? Is it safe? Here’s the 411.

Influenza, commonly known as the flu, is an illness caused by the influenza virus that affects the respiratory system. Symptoms of the flu can include sore throat, fever, chills, achiness, stuffy nose, breathing problems, and fatigue. It is a highly contagious virus, and in extreme cases, it can be fatal. So it’s basically a cold on steroids. Even the healthiest people are susceptible, and the Centers for Disease Control and Protection highly recommends the flu vaccine for the majority of the population.

The flu vaccine is made up of dead or weakened flu viruses that encourage your immune system to produce antibodies against those viruses. This protects you from becoming infected if and when you’re exposed. The vaccine can be found in an injectable form, in which the viruses are dead, or in a nasal-spray form, in which the viruses are alive, but weakened. You cannot get the flu from either the dead or live vaccine. However, symptoms such as fever, chills, and a runny nose can sometimes occur after vaccination. This is because vaccines work by tricking the body into thinking it’s being infected with a real virus so that it will produce antibodies against it. That way when you are exposed to the flu virus, your body is prepared to fight it off. If these symptoms occur they should only last a short time, and can often be relieved by taking NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as aspirin or ibuprofen.

Each year, there are several different flu strains circulating during flu season, which typically begins in October and can last all the way through April. The vaccine is designed to protect you from the most virulent strains. Flu viruses also mutate as time goes by, so each year new vaccines are produced based on the strains that were the most prevalent during the prior flu season, making it necessary to get revaccinated each year.

And it’s not too late! Although it’s recommended you get a flu shot as soon as they become available in your area, which is of course right when flu season is beginning in October, it is still effective if you’re just getting around to it now. Once administered, the vaccine protects you for one year. Flu season usually peaks during the months of January and February, so if you haven’t already come down with it, you can still get vaccinated before the height of the spread. The vaccine does take two weeks to be fully effective, though, so it will not protect you if you are exposed within that time period. The best way to avoid getting sick in the meantime is to wash your hands often and avoid touching your nose, eyes, and face.

Still on the fence because you have MS? According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the flu vaccine “has been studied extensively in people with MS and is considered quite safe.” But here are a few important things to know before making the choice:

  • First things first: we always recommend discussing any medical concerns such as getting a flu shot with your neurologist and/or primary-care physician before making a decision.
  • The injectable, dead-virus form of the vaccine is usually recommended for people with MS.
  • The vaccine can be safely taken along with any MS disease-modifying drugs you may already be on, but in some cases there is a chance the vaccine will not be as effective as it would be in the absence of those drugs.
  • If you are currently taking steroids for MS, your doctor may recommend skipping, or at least holding off on, the flu vaccine. This is because steroids work to suppress your immune response in order to dull MS symptoms, but that effect may also inhibit your body from creating antibodies for the flu.
  • Egg-free and preservative-free flu vaccines are now available for people with known allergies.

Again, each person’s MS case is different, so it is always best to consult your doctor about any health considerations including getting a flu shot.

For more information on the flu and flu shot, here are some suggestions for further reading:

Will you get a flu shot this year? Have you already? Tell us your thoughts!

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