Should People With Cancer Get a Flu Shot?
Getting a flu shot is recommended for most people with cancer and cancer survivors. Their family members are encouraged to get flu shots, too.
The flu shot is a type of flu vaccine. Flu vaccines cause the body to make antibodies that protect it against flu (influenza) virus infection.
In most people, the flu causes mild illness with body aches, fever, tiredness, and cough that is often gone within 2 weeks. But flu can also cause serious illness that can be life-threatening. (The section called “What are the symptoms of flu?” covers this in more detail.)
People with cancer or a history of cancer are more likely to have serious problems if they get the flu, as are pregnant women, young children, people over 65, and those with lung disease, heart disease, diabetes, and other medical problems. They are more likely to end up in the hospital or might even die from flu-related problems.
It’s best to get the flu shot as soon as it’s available for the upcoming flu season, preferably by October. Flu vaccines cause the body to make antibodies that protect it against influenza virus infection. It takes up to 2 weeks after the shot for the body to do this. This is why you should get the flu shot as soon as you can – so your body has time to form the protection you need for the flu season.
What types of flu vaccines are recommended for people with cancer?
People with cancer have to be careful about the type of flu vaccine they get. There are 2 main forms of flu vaccines:
- Live vaccines are made of weakened live virus and given as a nasal spray – people with cancer should NOT get the nasal spray vaccine.
- Inactivated vaccines are made of dead virus. They are given as a shot.
People with cancer should get the flu shots, NOT the nasal spray. Even a very weak live virus might cause illness in a person whose immune system is weak from cancer treatment.
Family members between the ages of 2 and 49 can get the nasal spray (at least during some flu seasons) unless the patient needs extra protection from germs. For example, household members should not get the nasal spray if a family member recently got a stem cell or bone marrow transplant or is getting high-dose chemotherapy. (These treatments greatly weaken the immune system.)
Can I get a flu shot during cancer treatment?
Yes, people getting cancer treatment (for instance, radiation or chemotherapy) should get a flu shot. Cancer and cancer treatment can weaken the immune system, which puts them at higher risk of serious and even life-threatening problems if they get the flu.
Many people with cancer worry that the flu shot will make them sick, but the flu shot does not cause the flu.
Some people get mild symptoms, such as a low-grade fever or muscle aches, after a flu shot. These symptoms are not the flu. They are caused by the immune system’s response to the flu shot and should go away in a day or so.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people who live with or care for a person at high risk for flu-related problems get the flu vaccine, too. This means that if you’re being treated for cancer, your family members, caregivers, and children age 6 months and older living at home should get the flu shot.
Remember that people who are allergic to chicken eggs or another ingredient used in the flu shot might have an allergic reaction to flu shots. Talk with your doctor about your reactions to eggs and any other allergies you have before you get a flu shot.
I had cancer, but I have no signs of cancer now. Is it still dangerous for me to get the flu?
Yes. If you’ve had cancer you might have a higher risk of serious problems if you get the flu, even if you are cancer-free now. Talk to your doctor about getting a flu shot.
Are cancer patients and survivors more likely to get the flu than other people?
No one knows for sure if cancer patients and survivors are more likely than others to get the flu. But we do know that they’re at greater risk for having serious problems if they do get the flu.
Why do I need a flu shot every year?
The flu shot is a seasonal vaccine. This means it gets updated every year to protect against the strains of flu virus that are believed to most likely cause illness in the upcoming flu season.
Immunity from the flu vaccine also wears off over time. You cannot count on any former flu vaccines to protect you against this year’s flu.
People are more likely to be exposed to influenza and get the flu during the flu season. The timing can vary, but in the US the flu season is usually from October to May, peaking in January and February. Most doctors recommend that people get flu shots as soon as they’re available, preferably by October.
It is possible to get the flu even if you get the shot. But the illness will likely be milder than if you had not been vaccinated.
What can I do to protect myself from the flu?
The best way to keep from getting the flu is to get the flu vaccine every year. For extra protection, encourage everyone in your household older than 6 months to get a flu vaccine, too. This lessens their chance of illness, and lowers the risk they will bring the flu home to you.
The flu spreads from droplets that come from coughing, sneezing, or talking and transfer to other people.
Even if you haven’t yet had the flu shot, there are things you and others can do to help prevent spreading flu viruses and many other germs.
- Wash your hands often. Use soap and warm water or alcohol-based cleaners or wipes.
- Do not touch your eyes or nose. Keep your fingers away from your mouth.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Then throw the tissue in the trash and wash your hands.
- Try to stay away from sick people. At least 6 feet is thought to be a safe distance (except for chickenpox and tuberculosis [TB], which can travel on air currents).
- Try to stay away from small children who spend their days in group settings like day care or school – germs spread easily in these places.
- Be ready just in case you do get sick so that you can stay home. Have the things you might need at home (food, tissues, hand cleaners, medicines for cough and fever, and so on) so that you won’t have to go out to get them.
- Take care of yourself. Follow public health advice about outbreaks, like school closings and avoiding crowds.
- If you do get sick, stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone without the use of a fever-relief medicine.
In some cases, prescription anti-viral drugs can be used to try to prevent the flu in someone who has been close to someone with it. They can also be used to treat people who’ve recently been infected. (See “Can the flu be treated if I already have symptoms?” and “When should cancer patients and survivors get anti-viral drugs to prevent the flu?” for more on this.)
What else can I do to be prepared for the flu?
Talk to your doctor ahead of time so you know what to do if you get sick. Talk about:
- What symptoms should prompt a call to the doctor
- Whether you should get an anti-viral drug if you get flu
- How to get a prescription for an anti-viral drug quickly if you need it
- Making sure your vaccines are up to date
Keep a written record of these important facts in a place you can find them quickly:
- The type of cancer you have or have had
- Cancer treatments you’ve had and when you had them
- The name and contact information for all your doctors
- A complete list of medicines you are taking
What are the symptoms of flu?
The flu is not just a very bad cold. Common flu symptoms include:
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Body aches
- Extreme tiredness
You can have some or all of these symptoms. A few people may have vomiting and diarrhea, too.
Many doctors offer quick tests that swab your nose or throat to find out if you have the flu. The tests work best if they are done within a day or 2 of the start of symptoms. So if you think you have the flu, call your doctor right away.
When should cancer patients and survivors get anti-viral drugs to prevent the flu?
If you have been within 6 feet of someone known or suspected to have the flu, and you:
- Have had cancer treatment like chemo or radiation within the last month
Call your doctor right away. Your doctor may give you a prescription for anti-viral drugs to help keep you from getting the flu – especially if you have not gotten a flu shot – and it’s best if the drug is started within 2 days of getting sick.
Can I take an anti-viral drug if I already have flu symptoms?
Yes, prescription anti-viral drugs can be used to treat the flu. People with cancer and cancer survivors should call their doctor right away if they start to have flu symptoms (see “What are the symptoms of flu?”).
These drugs work by keeping the virus from reproducing in your body. They can make the flu symptoms milder and can help you feel better faster. They can also help keep the infection from causing severe problems.
Anti-viral drugs work best if they are started within 2 days of getting sick, so don’t wait.
If you are a cancer patient or survivor, and you think you have the flu, follow these steps:
- Contact your health care provider and follow his or her instructions.
- Stay home and away from others as much as possible to keep from making them sick. Avoid public activities like work, school, travel, shopping, social events, and public gatherings. Stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone (without the use of fever-reducing drugs). Only go out to get medical care or other things you must have.
- If you need to go to the doctor, emergency room, or any other health care facility, let the staff know right away that you’re there because you think you may have the flu. They may have you cover your mouth and nose with a face mask. If not, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Toll-free number: 1-800-232-4636 (1-800-CDC-INFO)
Has detailed information on the flu and flu vaccines for people with cancer.
Has up-to-date information on seasonal flu and flu vaccines.
*Inclusion on this list does not imply endorsement by the American Cancer Society.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Cancer, the Flu, and You: What Cancer Patients, Survivors, and Caregivers Should Know About the Flu. Accessed at www.cdc.gov/cancer/flu/ on May 18, 2016.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Flu Symptoms. Accessed at www.cdc.gov/cancer/flu/symptoms.htm on May 18, 2016.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Influenza Antiviral Medications: Summary for Clinicians. Accessed at www.cdc.gov/flu/professionals/antivirals/summary-clinicians.htm#recommended on May 18, 2016.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Preventing the Flu: Good Health Habits Can Help Stop Germs. Accessed at www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/habits.htm on May 18, 2016.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Flu: What To Do If You Get Sick. Accessed at www.cdc.gov/flu/takingcare.htm on May 18, 2016.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). What You Should Know About Flu Antiviral Drugs. Accessed at www.cdc.gov/flu/antivirals/whatyoushould.htm on May 18, 2016.
Fiore AE, Fry A, Shay D, et al; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Antiviral Agents for the Treatment and Chemoprophylaxis of Influenza: Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). MMWR Recomm Rep. 2011;60(1):1-24. Accessed at www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/rr6001a1.htm on July 17, 2014.
Last Medical Review: June 1, 2016 Last Revised: February 10, 2017