The obvious key to avoiding the flu is to have a strong immune system. But if you don’t feel that your immune system is up to par, you can readily get a flu vaccination. Major chain drug stores and supermarkets encourage you to stop in and get your flu shot. But is this really a good idea? Do the benefits outweigh the risks? Here’s a look at the latest evidence on exactly what you can expect from the flu shot — what’s in it, how well it works, and potential risks, especially as related to your brain and nervous system.
What’s In Flu Vaccines
According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), substances you can expect to be added to vaccines include aluminum, antibiotics, egg protein, formaldehyde, monosodium glutamate, and mercury. The CDC argues that these are necessary to keep vaccines safe and effective and that the amounts added are very small. Here’s a look at the most controversial ingredients and what they are doing in vaccines.
Aluminum gels or salts make vaccines more effective by stimulating your body’s immune response. Aluminum is an abundant metal that’s a known neurotoxin suspected of causing Alzheimer’s. In the 1970s, autopsies revealed that people who had Alzheimer’s also had larger than normal concentrations of aluminum in the brain. While there is a growing body of evidence that links aluminum to Alzheimer’s, it has still not been determined for certain whether ingesting aluminum or getting it from vaccines is a cause of this disease.
Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is added to vaccines to stabilize them against changes that can occur when exposed to heat, light, acidity, or humidity. MSG is also an extremely common food additive found in almost all salty processed foods like canned soups, chips, crackers, and ramen noodles. It’s even found in soy protein products considered “healthy” like veggie burgers.
Thanks to a strong MSG industry lobby, it’s not always required to be listed on food labels. Reported side effects of MSG include headaches, migraines, muscle tightness, numbness, tingling, general weakness, flushing, arterial dilatation, upset stomach, fuzzy thinking, diarrhea, heart irregularities, asthma, and mood swings. If you’ve ever felt any of these symptoms after a Chinese restaurant meal, you probably have experienced MSG-induced Chinese restaurant syndrome.
Formaldehyde is added to vaccines to kill unwanted viruses and bacteria. It’s used as a preservative in mortuaries and medical laboratories. Anyone who’s ever taken Biology 101 remembers jars filled with pickled animal specimens preserved in the foul-smelling stuff. The general population is exposed to formaldehyde from pressed wood products, glues and adhesives, permanent press fabrics, paper product coatings, and insulation materials.
It’s a well-established neurotoxin that affects memory, learning, and behavior. It can cause coughing, wheezing, nausea, skin irritation, and burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and throat. According to Cancer.gov, formaldehyde is linked to many types of cancer.
Thimerosal is a preservative added to vials of vaccine to prevent bacterial contamination. By weight, it contains 50% mercury. Mercury is classified as a developmental neurotoxin as are lead, arsenic, PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl), and toluene. Mercury readily enters the brain to cause numerous neurological problems including fatigue, weakness, irritability, memory loss, depression, brain damage, hearing loss, and blurred vision.
Thimerosal is largely banned in Europe and other countries, but is still used in the U.S. mainly in multi-dose vials as a preservative. It’s advised that pregnant women and children avoid vaccines that contain thimerosal. You can find a list of flu shots that do not contain mercury on the CDC website.
Flu Shot Side Effects
Current guidelines recommend that everyone should get a flu shot, but that it is particularly important for children, pregnant women, seniors, and those working in the health care industry. Ironically, these are some of the groups most susceptible to flu shot side effects. The CDC lists minor side effects from the flu shot as hoarseness, irritated eyes, cough, fever, aches, headache, and fatigue — symptoms that sound a lot like the flu. It’s not uncommon to experience soreness, redness, or swelling after a shot is administered.
There’s also a long list of serious side effects. One rare but well-documented side effect of the flu vaccine is Guillain-Barré Syndrome. Symptoms include muscle weakness, temporary limb paralysis, permanent nerve damage and, in severe cases, respiratory failure and death. There’s a significant relationship between mercury exposure from vaccines that contain thimerosal and the risk of neurodevelopmental disorders in children including autism, ADHD, tic disorder, and developmental delays.
The World Health Organization reports that young people from ages 4 to 19 years who had a flu shot were nine times more likely to experience narcolepsy, a sleep disorder that causes a person to fall asleep suddenly and unexpectedly. Getting a flu shot during pregnancy may significantly increase the risk that the baby will develop autism during childhood or schizophrenia as a teen. Another study found that giving newborn monkeys the same vaccine given to human babies caused significant abnormalities in brainstem development.
Vaccine-related injuries are common enough that the United States Department of Health and Human Services has established a National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) to compensate those who have suffered vaccine injuries. You can see the VICP’s Vaccine Injury Table here. According to the Vaccine Injury Law Project, a legal firm that specializes in helping vaccine injury victims get compensation, serious vaccine reactions can lead to a wide variety of conditions including autism, seizures, arthritis, anaphylaxis, lupus, encephalitis, multiple sclerosis, and developmental delays.
Flu Shots Are Surprisingly Ineffective
You may be surprised to learn that getting a flu shot does not guarantee you will not get the flu. You can be vaccinated for the “wrong” strain. You can still get the flu even if the strains were properly matched but your immune system is not strong.
According to the CDC, approximately 30,000 Americans die of the flu each year. Some experts take exception with this number since it includes deaths by pneumonia which can be unrelated to the flu. To put that in proportion, your chances of dying from the flu are very similar to that of perishing from falling down (30,000), being shot (33,000), being killed in a car accident (34,000), or dying from an accidental poisoning (38,000).
A meta analysis of studies that included over 70,000 people concluded that, “Influenza vaccines have a modest effect in reducing influenza symptoms and working days lost. There is no evidence that they affect complications, such as pneumonia, or transmission.” According to the Alliance for Natural Health, a study in the peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet found that only 2.7 percent of non-vaccinated adults caught the flu which means that 97.3 percent of them did not. Among vaccinated adults, 1.2 percent contracted the flu. This study also concluded that, “Evidence for protection in adults aged 65 years or older is lacking.”
Before you decide whether or not to get the flu shot, arm yourself with information. If you decide the risks are worth the potential benefits, get a mercury-free shot that poses the least risk.
And since the flu shot provides no guarantees, it pays to take common sense measures to protect yourself whether or not you get the flu shot. Wash your hands frequently, avoid contact with those who have the flu, and take extra care of your health during flu season. That means getting adequate sleep and exercise, avoiding processed food, minimizing stress, and keeping up your vitamin D levels to keep your immune system strong.