Rheumatoid Arthritis and the Flu Shot

Still debating about getting the flu shot? Experts say it’s perfectly safe—and smart—for people with rheumatoid arthritis. Here’s why.

Health Monitor Staff
More Sharing +

You know rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can weaken your immune system, making you more prone to colds and flu. So what can you do to protect yourself? The flu shot is your number one defense.

Most people with RA can get the flu shot and other vaccines, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, always check with your healthcare provider before getting any vaccine.

Here, answers to your top flu questions.

Q. I heard that getting a flu shot could make my RA worse. Is that true?
A. No! In fact, the CDC says that getting a flu shot is especially important for anyone with RA. Arthritis and some of the medications used to treat it can increase your risk of getting the flu or having complications (such as developing pneumonia) if you do get infected. One important distinction: Get the flu shot rather than the nasal-spray vaccine called FluMist. The inhaled vaccine contains live viruses, which can weaken the immune system in people with RA. But the injected flu vaccine contains killed (inactivated) viruses. 

Q. When should I get a flu shot?
A. As soon as the yearly vaccine becomes available, usually in early October. Ask your healthcare provider to call you when it’s ready. It takes about two weeks after you’ve been vaccinated for you to be protected against the flu. And if you missed getting the shot in the fall, it’s not too late. Flu season typically peaks in February and can extend into May. One caution: If you have a fever or other infection or you’re having a flare-up, ask your healthcare provider whether you should wait until these symptoms resolve before getting the flu shot. And if you’re scheduled to start any new medication, find out whether you should get vaccinated before your treatment begins.

Q. What are the symptoms of the flu?
A. They include:
  • Fever/chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Body aches
  • Headache
  • Fatigue

Q. What should I do if I get sick?
A. If you develop flu-like symptoms, contact your healthcare provider.

  • Avoid contact with others. Stay home and avoid travel for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone, except to get medical care or necessities. Your fever should be gone without using fever-reducing medications.
  • Don’t stop taking any RA medicine unless told to do so by your physician.
  • Seek medical attention early if you develop symptoms of the flu. People with RA are considered high risk for complications from the flu; therefore, your healthcare provider may prescribe an antiviral medication if you get the flu.
  • If you’re exposed to someone who has the flu, consult your healthcare provider. They may prescribe medication to help prevent you from getting the flu or watch you closely to see whether you develop flu symptoms.
January 2013