Should I Get a Flu Shot?

You have rheumatoid disease. Maybe your diagnosis was recent. You take powerful disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) to relieve your symptoms and, hopefully, keep your disease quiet and under control. And now that fall is here and the annual flu shot is arriving at your doctor’s office or the local pharmacy, you wonder if it’s safe for you to take it, and whether you should.

The answer is yes--to both questions.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “People who have inflammatory rheumatic disease or autoimmune rheumatic disease (like rheumatoid arthritis) are at higher risk of getting respiratory infections. They're at higher risk for flu-related complications, such as pneumonia, as well.

“Inflammatory arthritis affects the immune system, which controls how well your body fights off infections. Also, many medications given to treat inflammatory arthritis can weaken the immune system. People with weakened immune systems are at high risk for getting more severe illness and complications, such as pneumonia,” states the CDC. A case of the flu could land you in the hospital.

The flu can be deadly, particularly for the very young, the elderly, and those of us with compromised immune systems. And specifically because RD—and, perhaps, the medications you take to treat it—compromises your immune system, you shouldn’t take thenasal-spray flu vaccine (sometimes called LAIV for “live attenuated influenza vaccine) at all. Ever. It could make you sick.

But you absolutely should get the “flu shot,” an inactivated vaccine (containing fragments of killed influenza virus) that is given with a needle, usually in the arm. According to the CDC, “the flu shot is approved for use in people with inflammatory arthritis.”

Getting the flu shot is the best way to protect yourself from the flu. But there are other common sense measures you can take, as well. The CDC suggests that you:

  • Try to avoid contact with people who have the flu
  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and hot water, or with antibacterial gel

Symptoms of the flu may include:

  • Fever*
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Body aches
  • Headache
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Sometimes, diarrhea or vomiting

*Note: not everyone with flu will have a fever.

If you develop flu-like symptoms, contact your health care provider as soon as possible. Avoid contact with others. You should stay home and avoid travel, including not going to work or school, until at least 24 hours after your fever is gone. Your fever should be gone without using fever-reducing medications. If you do need to leave the house, wear a face mask or cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue, and wash your hands frequently.

If you do catch the flu, don’t stop taking your RD medications unless your doctor tells you to. Seek medical attention as soon as you can. The CDC states that "treatment is available for persons with severe disease and those at high risk for complications. Persons with inflammatory rheumatic disease are at high risk for complications from the flu; therefore, your health care provider may choose to prescribe antiviral medications for you if you get the flu."

Talk to your doctor if you think you’ve been exposed to the flu. They may prescribe medication to help prevent you from getting it, or will watch you closely to see if you develop flu symptoms.

Note:People with osteoarthritis are likely not at increased risk for influenza-related complications unless they also have another high risk condition such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease, or cancer.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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