Flu Shots: Should You Get One if You Have Fibromyalgia?

Patient Expert

Every year as flu season nears, fibromyalgia and ME/CFS patients wrestle with the question of whether or not to get a flu shot.   Unfortunately, there is not a simple one-size-fits-all answer.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that everyone six months of age and older get a flu vaccine.   While most conventional doctors agree with the CDC and recommend flu vaccinations across the board, many FM and ME/CFS specialists advise their patients against getting the shot.

What FM and ME/CFS Specialists Say

Even among specialists, there are differing opinions about whether the flu vaccine is a good idea for FM and ME/CFS patients.

Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Kent Holtorf strongly recommended that people with mitrochondrial dysfunction, chronic neurological illnesses, fibromyalgia and ME/CFS not get the H1N1 vaccine because, to use his word, he has seen it "devastate" them.

Due to reports of severe relapses following immunization, Charles Lapp, MD, Director of the Hunter-Hopkins Center in Charlotte, NC, generally does not recommend flu shots of any kind for his FM and ME/CFS patients.   There are, however, two exceptions:

  • Patients who have taken flu vaccinations in the past and tolerated them well.
  • Patients who have a serious chronic illness (such as emphysema, diabetes or heart disease) in addition to FM or ME/CFS.

Charles Shepherd, MD, a U.K. doctor who is a member of the Chief Medical Officer's Working Group on CFS/ME at the U.K. Department of Health, agrees with Dr. Lapp.   He has found that a substantial percentage of his ME/CFS patients have mild-to-moderate relapses after receiving flu vaccinations.

On the other hand, Anthony Komaroff, MD, Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, the medical director of the Fibromyalgia and Fatigue Centers, feels the benefits outweigh the risks because the effects of the flu on FM and ME/CFS patients can be severe and long lasting.

Should You Get a Flu Shot?

There is no single right answer for every FM and ME/CFS patient.   You and your doctor should discuss the pros and cons as they apply to your particular case and then make the decision together.   Here are some points to ponder as you prepare to talk with your doctor:

-  There is some evidence that the immune systems of people with FM and ME/CFS are already in a state of chronic activation.   In that case, any kind of immunization could push this hyper-stimulated state into overdrive, which could significantly increase your symptoms.

-  What is your exposure level?   If you're largely homebound and have limited contact with other people, your risk of exposure to the flu will be minimal.   On the other hand, if you have school-age children who bring home every germ and virus imaginable, then your chances of catching the flu will me much higher.

-  If you have a serious chronic illness like emphysema, diabetes or heart disease, catching the flu could have life-threatening consequences for you.   You'll have to weigh the risks of getting the vaccine and triggering an FM or ME/CFS flare against the potentially serious complications from catching the flu.

-  This year's flu vaccine is identical to the vaccine given last year (2010 - 2011).   It is designed to prevent two types of seasonal flu and H1N1 (swine flu).   If you received a flu shot last year and didn't have any problems with it, you probably won't have a problem this year either.

What to Do if You Get the Flu

If you decide not to take the flu vaccination, there are two antiviral medications available should you catch the flu - Relenza (an inhaler) or Tamiflu (tablets).   According to Dr. Lapp, these medications must be taken within 48 hours of onset in order to reduce the severity and length of the illness.

There is also a homeopathic remedy available at most drugstores called Oscillococcinum that some people swear by to reduce the symptoms and duration of the flu.   As with many homeopathic medicines, there is a debate as to its effectiveness.   While a few clinical trials have suggested that Oscillococcinum can reduce the duration of the symptoms of flu, some researchers question the statistical significance and the scientific rigor of those studies.

Lapp, Charles W. (2009, October). Influenza Vaccination., From Hunter-Hopkins Center.
Lowe, John C. (2003, December 7). Should You Get a Flu Shot?   From drlowe.com.
Komaroff, Anthony. Fibromyalgia and Flu Shots. From msn. Health & Fitness.
Klein, Sarah. Flu Shots, Swine Flu and Fibromyalgia: Should Pain Patients Get Vaccinated? (2009, September 24) From Health.com.

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