How Does the Flu Vaccine Work?

YouBeauty explains the science.

| October 3rd, 2013

Facts About the Flu Shot

Seasonal flu is a nasty respiratory infection caused by the influenza virus. The flu generally rolls in with the cooler weather, circulating between September and May and peaking in January or February.

You get the flu through exposure to the virus, which may happen when a person who is infected coughs or sneezes near you. Symptoms include cough, sore throat, chills, aches and occasionally fever. In some cases, the flu leads to complications such as pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections and lung infections, and may even land you in the hospital. Thousands die (yes, die!) from the flu in the U.S. each year.

MORE: 5 Ways to Fight the Flu

How can you protect yourself from this nasty virus? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and the National Institutes of Health, the best way to prevent the flu is to get vaccinated. The organizations also recommend that virtually everyone—both healthy people and those at greater risk for the flu—should get a vaccination each year in order to get the best protection.

According to Dr. Beth Ricanati, an internist on YouBeauty’s medical advisory board, mass immunization provides herd immunity, where people who are vaccinated not only protect themselves but also the unvaccinated people they come into contact with.

“What I think is really important is that when you get the flu shot, it’s not just for yourself. You’re helping to protect those around you,” she says, noting that this is especially important if you spend time with the elderly, kids or people with compromised immune systems. “It’s great for us and it’s great for them. It is a public health issue as well as a personal health issue.”

Dr. Ricanati recommends her patients to be vaccinated by the end of September or early October.

But how exactly does the flu vaccine work? And how do you know which one to get?

How Does the Flu Vaccine Work?

Building Immunity
There are two basic types of flu vaccines: the flu shot and the flu nasal spray. Both are designed to prompt your immune system to recognize the flu virus so that when you are hit with the real thing, your body can stop it from infecting you.

The flu shot accomplishes this because it contains inactivated flu viruses, which essentially means the viruses are dead. The body responds to these inactivated viruses by making immune cells called antibodies, which match up with targets called antigens that stud the surface of the virus. When the flu rips through your hometown or city in the winter, your new antibodies recognize its antigens, bind to them and neutralize the virus.

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