What family doctors want you to know about the flu shot

A woman sick in bed sneezes into a tissue.Family doctors are asking Nova Scotians to roll up their sleeves to receive a flu shot. With respiratory viruses ramping up across Nova Scotia this fall and winter, it’s more important than ever to be vaccinated against the influenza virus. Everyone aged six months and older is encouraged to get a flu shot.

Dr. Leslie Ribeiro is a rural family physician in Middleton who gives flu shots to patients each autumn. “It’s important to get the flu shot to protect yourself from getting very sick, to protect those around you as you will be less likely to spread the flu, and to help decrease burden on the health-care system,” she says.

She worries that this year could be a bad one for the flu. Last year, due to the public health measures intended to curb the spread of COVID-19, Nova Scotians didn’t spread the usual seasonal viral illnesses such as colds and flu. “This means there is less built-up immunity in the population to the flu virus.”

Think of it like this: your immune system usually gets a memo about what the flu looks like each year, either because you get the flu shot or because you run into the virus naturally in the community.

“If the flu virus enters your body, your body recognizes it quickly and deals with it before the virus has a chance to replicate itself,” says Dr. Ribeiro. “But last year you might not have run into this virus, so your immune system may be slower to protect you and then it’s too late – you get sick.”

It’s easy for people to dismiss the flu as no big deal. “For a lot of people, it can be a really mild viral illness,” Dr. Ribeiro says. “And a lot of people call other viral infections ‘having the flu,’ making the situation even more confusing. But for some people, influenza can be very serious or even life-limiting.”

This includes children aged six months to five years old, pregnant people, people over age 65, residents in long-term care, Indigenous people and people living with chronic disease (for example, people with heart or lung disease).

The best way to protect yourself and the people around you is to get the flu shot. Don’t let misinformation or fear stop you from rolling up your sleeve.

You can’t get the flu from the flu shot, for example. “Sometimes, when your immune system is ramping up in response to the vaccine, you’ll experience side effects like chills and rigors [violent shivering],” says Dr. Ribeiro. “It’s not the flu – it’s just your body doing what it’s supposed to do to protect you.”

Tell your doctor if you’re scared of needles. “Your family doctor is often someone you know and trust, so that might help you relax and have an easier time getting the shot,” says Dr. Ribeiro. “We can talk about the different ways we can get around [your fear], such as taking more time, using distraction techniques or pain reduction techniques. If it’s a fainting issue, Anxiety Canada has a great resource on applied tension technique that might work for some.”

Family physicians across Nova Scotia hold flu shot clinics from mid-October until about mid-December. Appointments book quickly, so it’s best to schedule one with your doctor sooner rather than later.

Flu shots are available at walk-in clinics and pharmacies – and you can now book your flu shot online. “Everyone should just get the flu shot,” says Dr. Ribeiro, “Wherever is most available or comfortable for you – just get ’er done!”

Note: People five years old and older can safely receive the flu shot before, after or even at the same time as receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. As a precaution, children ages six months to four years must wait 14 days between receiving their flu shot and COVID-19 vaccine. COVID-19 vaccinations do not protect against influenza, and the influenza vaccine does not protect against COVID-19.

Multiple shipments of the vaccine will be arriving this fall, so don’t panic if you can’t get in right away – there will be more opportunities.

For more information on how to keep yourself and your loved ones safe from the flu, visit Nova Scotia’s Department of Health and Wellness.

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