Editor's Note: This post was originally published in 2019. Updates were made and additional questions answered in 2020.
Flu vaccinations are the best way to help protect against the flu. Each year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that everyone 6 months of age and older receive the vaccination. Getting an annual flu shot is particularly important for those who have been affected by lung cancer, including patients, survivors, caregivers, and others who are frequently around a lung cancer patient.
Rasheda Persinger, an Oncology Nurse Practitioner at Sibley Memorial Hospital, explained the importance of the flu shot, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
What is a flu shot and how does it work?
According to the CDC, a flu shot is a vaccine. The flu vaccination protects the immune system from certain strains of the influenza virus. The flu shot prepares your body (development of antibodies) to get ready to protect if the flu virus presents itself. It is important to note that it takes the body on average 2 weeks before the vaccination will work (successful development of antibodies). Also, each season the vaccine is composed of the top 3 or 4 viruses researched.
Can receiving the flu shot cause the flu?
No. Given it takes approximately 2 weeks before antibodies develop in order to provide protection, a patient can be expose to the virus prior to administration of the flu vaccination or before complete development of antibodies. Remember, it is the development of antibodies that provide protection against the certain strains of the flu virus. In addition, each season’s vaccine only composes the top 3 or 4 viruses which means there are potential other strains an individual can be exposed to.
Will getting the flu shot increase the risk of getting COVID-19?
No. There is no data to suggest this.
Why should lung cancer patients get a flu shot?
Given an increased risk for serious influenza-related complications, a flu vaccination is recommended for patients with a cancer diagnosis including lung. Influenza viruses effects mostly the respiratory system. Therefore, in patients with a lung cancer diagnosis could potential further compromise the lungs.
How important is it for cancer patients and their families to get a flu shot this year?
I would not necessarily say it is more or less important this year versus any other year in terms of promoting patients and their families to obtain a flu shot. For me, the importance is understanding influenza has the potential to cause profoundly serious adverse effect which could result in hospitalizations. This additional hospitalization requirement could increase the already strained healthcare system as it treats those individuals hospitalized due to COVID.
Will getting the flu shot reduce someone’s chances of getting COVID-19?
No. Given the information we have at this time, there is no correlation between influenza and COVID-19.
Are they any risks for a cancer patient receiving a flu shot?
In patients with a cancer diagnosis, administration of the Flu-Mist can result in an infection due to it being a weakened live virus. Individuals with cancers should not receive any live virus due to this risk. The flu shot, which is an inactivated (dead) virus, is the only method an individual with cancer should receive.
When should you get a flu shot?
Ideally a patient should receive the flu shot approximately 2 weeks prior to the flu season. However, due to longer flu seasons vaccinations can be given late. Individuals undergoing chemotherapy should receive the flu shot 2 weeks prior to starting or in between cycles.
What can you do, in addition to getting a shot, to lower the risk of developing the flu?
Additional steps to take in order to lower the risk of developing the flu are avoiding large crowds, good hand hygiene, clean and disinfect surfaces, minimize hand shaking with known sick individuals or during the heighten flu season.
In addition to getting the flu vaccine, what other precautions can cancer patients and their families take to help avoid getting the flu as well as COVID-19?
The following are other precautionary tips for patients with cancers and their families:
Avoid large crowds
Wear masks when unable to remain 6ft apart
Avoid close contact with people who are sick
Frequent handwashing. If soap products are not available, use alcohol base hand sanitizer
Avoid hand shaking
Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth
The flu can be a potentially dangerous illness for people who have been affected by lung cancer. Every flu season is different and it is essential those affected by lung cancer, including caregivers and others frequently around someone undergoing treatment, to receive a vaccination each year to prevent illness. Flu shots are often free with insurance or available at a minimal charge without insurance and are available at doctors offices, urgent care clinics, pharmacies, and drug stores.
Talk to your doctor to learn more.
Rasheda Persinger Adams, NP-C,i s an oncology nurse practitioner at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, DC. You can hear more from Rasheda in our post on Oncology Nurse Practitioners.