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Flu Shots for Cancer Patients: Seven Fast Facts

Everyday tasks can fall to the wayside when a family is dealing with cancer. But one must-do needs to stay on everyone’s radar: flu shots. Here are seven things to keep in mind.

1. Most people who’ve had cancer should get a flu shot. “The vast majority of cancer patients and survivors should get the annual inactivated flu vaccine,” said Rishi Jain MD, MS, DABOM, a hematologist/oncologist with Fox Chase Cancer Center.

There are exceptions, however. Certain patients who’ve had a previous bone marrow transplant or who are on some high-dose chemotherapy regimens may need to avoid getting the vaccine. This is a conversation you should have with your oncologist.

2. A specific kind of flu vaccine is best for cancer patients and survivors. There are two kinds of influenza vaccines: a live vaccine and an inactive vaccine.

“In general, we think cancer patients should get the inactive vaccine,” Jain said. “It’s made of dead virus. That’s usually given as an injection.”

The live vaccine is usually given as a nasal spray. It’s best for people with cancer whose immune system may be suppressed to avoid this live intranasal vaccine.

3. In general, the flu shot isn’t dangerous for people with cancer. It is a common misconception that the flu vaccine can give you the flu. “Patients who are getting the inactivated vaccine can’t truly catch the flu from the vaccine,” Jain said. “They can get mild, flu-like symptoms—headache, muscle aches, or low-grade fever. But it is not a true flu infection. It’s just the immune system’s response to the flu antigens from the vaccine. Those symptoms are generally short-lasting—resolving in one or two days and are much less severe than symptoms caused by the actual flu virus.”

4. Because the flu virus changes, vaccinations should be given annually. The influenza vaccine gets updated every year to fight the strains of flu virus that are most likely to cause illness at that time. Flu vaccines wear off over time too. So, annual vaccines are needed for up-to-date protection.

“The timing and duration of flu seasons can change but flu vaccines usually start around September or October. People should be able to receive the vaccine at their oncologist’s, or primary care physician’s office, or the local pharmacy,” Jain said.

5. Friends and family of cancer patients also need the flu vaccine. One of the big problems with the flu is that it’s highly contagious.

“In general, flu is transmitted from oral or nasal secretions—coughing, sneezing, even talking can transmit the infection,” Jain said.

People with cancer often have suppressed immune systems, so it’s especially important for them to avoid exposure to the flu virus. Since the flu vaccine reduces the risk of getting the flu but doesn’t totally prevent it, it’s important for friends and loved ones of cancer patients to also get vaccinated. That provides one more layer of flu prevention for people with cancer.

6. Cancer patients are at a higher risk—but maybe not for flu infection. “We don’t really know if cancer patients and survivors are at a higher risk for getting flu,” Jain said. “But they are at a higher risk for complications, like pneumonia, from the flu.”

7. Antivirals may help if cancer patients get the flu, and they may prevent the flu in some patients. Antiviral medications can help shorten the duration of the flu if taken within 48 hours of getting flu symptoms. These medications can also help prevent the flu in some cancer patients. “They should contact their oncologist immediately—ideally within 48 hours if they have a known exposure to someone with the flu,” Jain said.

Your care team is always a resource if you have any questions at all about receiving the flu shot. Make sure that you and those around you are prepared this fall and winter!

Also read: 6 Tips for Avoiding Infections This Winter