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 the nasal-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.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The RheumatoidArthritis.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.
View References
  1. Athritis and Influenza Update. (2015, Jan. 12) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved on September 27, 2015 from http://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/flu.htm

Comments

View Comments (7)
  • PamelaP
    3 years ago

    Hello. This is my first post. I’m thankful to all of you for this site and the information and sharing. I was recently diagnosed with moderate RA. I already knew I had osteo-arthritis but this diagnosis is new for me. I don’t know why it caught me of guard since my mama and her mama had it too.

    You mentioned these flu symptoms: Fever*, Cough, Sore throat,
    Runny or stuffy nose, Body aches, Headache, Chills, Fatigue,
    Sometimes diarrhea or vomiting.

    I have all of them, 24/7, except for the fever and vomiting. I have been on Plaquenil several weeks and it seems to make my joint pain, especially in my hands and left heel, worse instead of better. So I’m thinking he might move on to the more “serious” meds at some point. This is so scary to me.

    I already have serious nerve pain from neurofibromatosis. My little lumps are all inside, surrounding my nerves, except for about a dozen on my right forearm. So nobody knows about this. I also have an almost inert colon and am fighting that battle, and many food allergies. And now, RA?

    I am severely allergic to aspirin and all related products so the only anti-inflammatory medicine I’ve ever been able to take is cortisone and I am hesitant to start that. Mama lived on it the last 17 years of her life. She lost a lot of her eyesight as well as other things.

    I am trying very hard to live a normal life but some days are really bad and I just have to stay in bed and sleep or read. It really makes me sad that I cannot do the things I could just a few years ago, like my hobbies of stained glass and playing the piano. I read a lot and also make sugar art cake toppers to put on cakes I bake and decorate and give away.

    Anyway, this post is too long and probably TMI. But I wanted to say, “Hey. I’m here and I’m reading your posts. And thank you.”

  • JS Stephens
    3 years ago

    I wholeheartedly agree, I am a strong advicate for flu shots since I have such a compromised immune system. I have take them since probably 1972 (remember the flu shots that were made from or in chicken embryos anyone?) Sorry, I am showing my age here! I have had the flu twice even thro I had been vaccinated. I’ve gone to the doctor when that occurs & say I’ve had the vaccination! They say that that didn’t protect us for the strain that came about later in the season, BUT since I had the shot, my flu case will be lessened & that is very true. I think the last time was about 3 yrs ago & I only missed 3 days of work! Normally the flu is so severe for us we would be done for at least a week, then the complications can set in & on & on. I have a question Ms. Wren, when I got my vaccine a just last week @Walgreens, I asked about the new pneumonia vaccine-Prevnar 13. I have taken the orginal one 2 times now, but the pharmacist said that it would be a great idea to have this new one, so I did. I did sk her if it was a ‘live’ vaccine, but she said no. What is you opinion of the new Prevnar 13 vaccination? Thank you!

  • Wren moderator author
    3 years ago

    Hi, JS! Thanks for commenting and for your question. First: I’m not a doctor, so don’t base your decisions about your RD, medications, or vaccinations on what I–or anyone you read on the Internet–says. Always talk to your doctor, first, OK? (I know you already know this, but just in case…) 😉

    That said, I did a little googling and didn’t see anything about Prevnar 13 that would indicate people with RD shouldn’t take it. In fact, as with the flu vaccine, the thinking is that because RD and the drugs we often take to treat it can lower our body’s ability to fight off infection, vaccinating against common viruses and bacteria (like streptococcus in the case of Prevnar 13) may help prevent us from becoming ill in the first place. To me, that just seems wise. I took a pneumonia vaccine a couple of years ago on my rheumatologist’s advice; I’m not sure which one it was. I suffered no adverse effects. 🙂

  • Steppiemum
    3 years ago

    My doc advised me to have every family member that I am in contact with, as well as all of my friends, have a flu shot–just to protect me! I agree with the previous poster, but why not do all you can? Everyone is jumping on board and doing it for little old me.

  • Wren moderator author
    3 years ago

    I’m with you, Steppiemum. I know the flu jab doesn’t (can’t) protect against ALL the different flu strains flying about in the fall and winter. And I know that sometimes the researchers choose the wrong ones to protect us from. Big pharma doesn’t make much (rather, it loses money) on the flu vaccine, so there’s that. And like you, I’d prefer to try to protect myself if I can. I’ve never (in about 30 years) become sick following a flu shot. And I’ve never caught the flu. That’s reason enough to get it, for me.

    Thanks for your comment! 🙂

  • Sneed
    3 years ago

    I kind of doubt it is as simple as presented. Typically the annual flu shot will provide some protection against the particular strain(s) that it targeted but none against other strains and their record of targeting the strains that actually show up is far from good. Additionally, there are adverse reactions to the shots for a certain % of folks and these are swept under the rug by big pharma, which makes out handsomely from the shot program.

    Personally, I do not take these shots; I’m not certain that is the correct decision but trusting big pharma or the lying, bought and sold government is not something I am personally willing to do.

  • Wren moderator author
    3 years ago

    Hi, Sneed!
    Taking or not taking the flu vaccine is up to you–as it should be. My article is simple, but then, I believe the subject is, too. Why not do what you can to protect yourself? I’ve been taking the flu jab for at least 30 years. I’ve never gotten sick or gotten the flu from it. In fact, I’ve never had the flu in all those years, even when others around me got it. That’s enough reason for me. It’s painless, quick, and basically benefits no one but those who take it (conceding that “they” sometimes don’t choose the correct strains to include in the vaccine).

    All that said, I’m so glad to hear from you! I hope this finds you feeling well. Thanks very much for taking the time to comment. 🙂

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