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Expert Q&A

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Could my cough and sore throat be a reaction to the flu vaccine?

Asked by Suzie, Illinois

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I received the flu shot but about 10 days later came down with a painful cough, headache, fatigue and sore throat, but no fever. Is this a reaction to the flu shot? It's miserable!

Expert Bio Picture

Living Well Expert Dr. Jennifer Shu Pediatrician,
Children's Medical Group

Expert answer

Thanks for writing, and I'm sorry to hear about your miserable illness! The flu shot is made from killed (inactivated) virus particles and as such cannot directly give anyone the flu. As with any vaccine, however, it's not uncommon to have minor side effects for a day or two after receiving the shot. Usually these symptoms consist of body aches, a low-grade fever (under 101 degrees F) and soreness at the site of the injection.

On the other hand, the nasal spray flu vaccine is made from a live, weakened virus, which creates a mini-infection in the nose to stimulate the body to produce antibodies against the virus. The nasal spray vaccine may cause minor flulike symptoms, such as runny nose, headache, sore throat and cough for a few days although most people experience no reactions at all.

Vaccines usually take about two weeks to provide immunity so you may have actually come down with the flu before your immunity was established. Without a fever accompanying your flulike symptoms, though, it's possible that you received partial protection from the flu shot and had a milder case of illness than you would have had if you did not get the shot. Alternatively, you may have acquired another viral illness completely unrelated to the flu vaccine. In fact, in the last few months (before the vaccine for 2009 H1N1 influenza became available), several of my patients got the vaccine against seasonal flu and not too long afterward came down with H1N1 flu (also called swine flu), which the seasonal flu vaccine does not prevent.

I encourage any readers who believe they may have experienced an adverse reaction to a vaccine to seek immediate medical care and report the symptoms (you or your doctor can do this) to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), which tracks serious side effects that may be related to vaccines. The report may be submitted online at http://vaers.hhs.gov/index or you may call 1-800-822-7967 to receive a copy of the reporting form.

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