Should cancer patients get the flu shot?

Many patients may not realize it, but cancer and its treatments may affect your immune system’s ability to fight off infection.

Many patients may not realize it, but cancer and its treatments may affect your immune system’s ability to fight off infection. This can put cancer patients who develop the flu at a higher risk for developing complications from the virus, so Mashiul Chowdhury, MD, says they should make getting a flu shot a top priority each fall.

The Chief of Infectious Diseases at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), Dr. Chowdhury also recommends that because of their close relationships to patients, caregivers—health care providers included—vaccinate themselves against the flu each year. Even survivors and patients currently undergoing treatment should take a preventative approach to the flu. “It doesn’t matter if you’re actively receiving chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy. You should get the vaccine,” Dr. Chowdhury says.

Cancer may increase risk of complications

Although researchers don’t know whether cancer patients and survivors are more likely to get the flu than the general population, cancer may increase the risk of flu complications, including hospitalization or even death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s why it’s so important for caregivers to receive the vaccine, too, Dr. Chowdhury says. “The flu is easily transmitted through coughing, sneezing or even through touch,” he says. “And people can transmit the virus at least a day or two before they’re symptomatic.”

Because it takes up to two weeks for the body to make antibodies to protect itself from the flu, the American Cancer Society advises getting the flu shot as soon as possible. The flu season in the United States typically runs from October to May, peaking in January and February, although the season fluctuates by geographic region.

And don’t worry that the flu shot will give you the flu. “That’s a common misconception,” Dr. Chowdhury says. “People should not worry about getting the flu from these vaccines.” In fact, the flu vaccine, when given as a shot, contains either inactivated virus or no virus at all. The shot may cause a mild fever and pain at the site, but that’s just a reaction to the vaccine, not the flu itself. Symptoms of the flu often include a fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headaches, chills and extreme tiredness.

How to reduce your risk

To reduce your risk of contracting the flu, avoid crowded areas (and wear a mask if you do have to encounter a crowd) and practice good hand-washing hygiene. If you think you’re coming down with the flu, call your doctor to see if he or she can prescribe an antiviral medication that may help decrease the virus’ severity and duration.

If you’ve been in contact with someone who has the flu or suspects the flu, call your doctor right away. He or she may be able to prescribe prophylactic antibiotics that, if taken early enough, may prevent the flu from developing, Dr. Chowdhury says.

“The vaccine is the best protection you have against the flu,” he says. “I think everyone should take advantage of it.”