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Are Flu Shots Right For Cancer Patients?

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Updated November 05, 2010

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Question: Are Flu Shots Right For Cancer Patients?
Should patients undergoing cancer treatment get flu shots? What about their caregivers?
Answer:

Undergoing treatment for cancer can wreak havoc on your body. It makes you feel terrible and leaves you with a very weakened immune system.

Getting the flu when you are undergoing cancer treatment will make you feel much worse, though, and can be very dangerous. However, many people may wonder if getting the flu shot could be dangerous for cancer patients.

Is the Flu Shot Safe for Cancer Patients?

The truth is that the flu shot is one of the safest and most effective ways to prevent the flu. It is recommended for everyone over the age of 6 months, but especially for those in high-risk groups -- including those with weakened immune systems, such as people undergoing cancer treatment.

The flu shot is made of a killed influenza virus, so there is no danger of contracting the flu from the vaccine. However, those with compromised immune systems should not get the nasal spray flu vaccine because it is made from a weakened live virus. "Most people can get either form, but those with chronic medical conditions should get the injectable flu vaccine as opposed to the nasal spray," says Dr. Georgina Peacock at the Centers for Disease Control.

When is the Flu Shot Not Okay?

There are certain circumstances that cancer patients may encounter where the flu vaccine may not be recommended. If you have recently undergone a bone marrow or organ transplant, your doctor may decide that it is best for you not to get any vaccine. You should always speak to your doctor about what is right for you. If you are unable to get the vaccine, it is even more important for those around you to get it so that they will not pass the virus on to you.

In addition, some conventional chemotherapy regimens can make the flu vaccine ineffective, so your doctor may recommend timing the shot with a break in your therapy regimen, in order to increase effectiveness.

The flu vaccine is also not recommended for those with egg allergies, babies under 6 months old, those with a history of Guillain-Barre Syndrome, and anyone who is sick and has a fever at the time of vaccination (wait until you are well before getting the shot).

The Bottom Line

If you have cancer (or a weakened immune system), do what you can to prevent the flu. Get the flu shot if you can, and either way, make sure those around you do as well.

Sources:

Interview with Dr. Georgina Peacock, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 25 Oct 10.

"People at High Risk of Developing Flu-Related Complications." Seasonal Influenza (Flu). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 3 Sep 10. 3 Nov 10.

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