The Pitt Prescription: The sick truth about the flu

The Pitt Prescription is a bi-weekly blog where student pharmacist and Senior Staff Writer Elizabeth Donnelly provides tips on how to stay healthy in college.


Ted S. Warren/The Plain Dealer | TNS

A patient receives a flu shot.

Welcome to the first installment of The Pitt Prescription, a new blog related to health and overall well-being. I decided to start this blog because I want to help take complex medical topics the general student population might not know a whole lot about and turn them into something that will resonate with my readers. Ever since I was a little girl, I knew I wanted to be in a career where I could help others, and with pharmacy, I can do just that.

As a pharmacist, I want to be able to relate to my patients and empathize with them. I know what it’s like to be confused about a medication or a diagnosis, and I sure do understand patients who are afraid of immunizations. I once was (and still slightly am) terrified of getting shots, which brings me to my first blog topic: the flu shot.

When I was about 14 or 15, I had a wild day. It started out normal enough — I went to school, participated in afterschool activities and then came home. Upon arriving I went to the fridge to look for a snack, only to find a mysterious brown paper bag sitting on the shelf. Confused, I went to ask my mom what it was. She told me it was a surprise for later.

Now to a child, a surprise in a brown paper bag in the fridge can only mean one thing: some sort of delicious treat I could enjoy later on. I happily grabbed a cheese stick and some water and sat down to do my homework, pondering the contents of the bag.

A bit of time passed before my mom called me and my brother, Mike, to the kitchen. She pulled out the bag and told us it was time to see what was in it. Mike and I sat on the edges of our seats as my mom slowly unveiled her “surprise.”

Much to my dismay, it was not a sweet treat. Instead, my mother pulled out two large syringes and said, “It’s time to get your flu shot.”

As a immunization-licensed pharmacist, those syringes didn’t make her bat an eye, but to me and Mike, they looked like terrifying, painful weapons. My mother proceeded to take us to a nearby flu clinic and give us each our seasonal shot. We didn’t go down without a fight, however, and it ended up taking both my parents to hold me down.

I was enraged — I could not believe my own parents had betrayed me like that. Looking back on it, I still laugh at how hard I resisted that shot. Shots aren’t fun, I get it, but what I’ve realized over the years is that getting a preventable illness is much worse than a slight pinch (or even no pain at all, shoutout to my mom who is really good at giving painless flu shots).

The annual flu shot is a vital part of our health care system and so easily accessible that there are very few excuses not to get one. But there’s still so many misconceptions about the shot that I’ve decided to do some quick myth-busting.

Myth: Getting a flu shot can give you the flu.

Fact: According to the CDC, the flu shot can be prepared in two different ways: one with a completely inactive virus (which means it is dead and literally cannot cause the flu) and one with a single gene from the virus, which is only enough to cause an immune system response, but does NOT cause infection.

Myth: If I can still catch the flu when I got the shot, there’s no point in getting the shot.

Fact: According to a 2017 CDC study, getting the flu vaccination reduced deaths, ICU admissions, ICU length of stay and overall duration of hospitalization for people who caught the sickness. The flu is not just a severe cold — it is a virus that has the potential to kill people infected with it, which is why even if you get the flu after getting the shot, you will still be in a much safer position.

Myth: If I got a flu shot last year, I don’t need one this year.

Fact: It is recommended to get a yearly flu shot because the flu strains often change year to year, so the annual shot is what’s best for that year. Even if the vaccine does happen to be the same as last year’s, your antibody count toward the flu decreases as time goes on. Getting a flu shot every year is the best way to protect yourself.

Myth: Healthy people don’t need to get flu shots.

Fact: Even if you are in good health, the flu shot is still recommended. The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months and older get a flu shot to protect themselves yearly. Even if you have not had the shot before and have luckily not gotten the flu, this does not mean you are safe. If you have a chronic health disease, it is often even more important for you to get vaccinated due to an already weakened immune system, however, everyone should protect themselves from the flu.

According to the CDC, it usually takes about two weeks for the body to produce enough antibodies to actually prevent the flu, which is why it is recommended to get your flu shot sometime in early September. Flu season goes into main effect starting in October and it can last as long as through April, with peak months being December and February.

The flu is very contagious, especially in the first three to four days after someone is infected, so it is vital that you do not share food or drinks with others during this season. It is also important to wash your hands frequently and it is good practice to wipe down your phone, computer and other technology that travels around with you and could have come in contact with an infected person.

The National Vital Statistics Reports showed that in 2017 the flu (influenza) was the eighth highest cause of death in the United States, coupled with pneumonia at almost 60,000 deaths that year.

If you are able-bodied and capable of getting a flu shot, there is absolutely no reason not to. I understand there are things like fear of needles and lack of time, but the negative effects of missing your flu shot immensely outweigh any of these.

Student Health Services will be distributing free flu shots to Pitt students at the HealthyU Fair in the WPU on Wednesday, Sept. 25, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. It will also be holding walk-in flu clinics in the Wellness Center in Nordenberg Hall on Fridays throughout October and November. Here are the dates and times:

Oct. 4: 10 a.m. – noon 

Oct. 11: 10 a.m. – noon

Oct. 18: 10 a.m. – noon.

Oct. 25: 10 a.m. – noon

Nov. 1: 10 a.m. – noon

Nov. 8: 10 a.m. – noon

Nov. 15: 10 a.m. – noon

Nov. 22: 10 a.m. – noon

Get your flu shot now before it’s too late!