Pharmacy U

COVID-19 and flu season – Overcoming patients’ flu shot fears in the pandemic era

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“Flu Shots? They make me sick!”

By Carlene Oleksyn, BSP Pharm, CTH


Ever get tired of hearing people say they don’t want the flu shot because it made them sick? Or people who say they’re really healthy so they don’t need it, or it doesn’t work anyway so why bother? These are just a few of the things pharmacists will hear from their patients over the coming months. Talking with patients who regard vaccine myths as fact is one of the most challenging aspects of vaccination.

A few years ago I started to change how I approach people regarding influenza vaccination. Whether it’s patients refusing the vaccine, or those who come in somewhat reluctantly, I realized that by providing some scientific facts, in language they can relate to, vastly increased the uptake and acceptance of flu shots.

Here are my top five points to increase patient acceptance of flu shots:

  • Explain what it is. Make a point of telling patients what you’re protecting them from. Influenza is a “serious lung infection” which causes a high fever, likely a cough, and makes you feel like you’ve been hit by a truck. Most people will recover, but some end up in hospital and some die.
  • Explain what it is NOT. It’s essential to tell patients what the flu shot is NOT protecting them from. My usual spiel goes something like, “This shot does not protect you from nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, “stomach flu,” colds or sinus infections. Those are all caused by other viruses. You can, and likely will, get some of these illnesses this winter whether you have the flu shot or not.”
  • Take away the mystery. Using imagery is a great way to help people understand what vaccines do. “I am giving you a killed-off version of the virus. Your body recognizes it as an invader, even though it’s dead, and makes antibodies to protect you against the virus. Antibodies fit like puzzle pieces on the virus. If you get sick with the real thing, those antibodies will fit on the virus and get rid of it before it makes you sick.”

This also helps explain why we need to get the vaccine every year as the virus “changes its shape” and the antibody will not fit any more. It also explains the vaccine-virus match.

I explain to patients that science is not perfect and experts do their best, but whether it’s a 20 per cent or an 80 per cent match, 20 per cent protection is better than no protection.

  • Ask why. When a patient tells me they don’t get the flu shot, I always ask them why. This helps me pinpoint what type of information to provide. For example, if refusal is because it “made them sick,” I want to know “what kind of sick.” Often I hear that they had the “stomach flu” or a winter full of bad colds. If they say they don’t “believe in it” or they think they don’t need it, I use open-ended questions to ascertain why they feel that way.
  • Express empathy and roll with resistance. “It’s my job to present the science and facts so you can make an informed decision.” In the end, it’s the patients’ choice, but I want to ensure I’ve done my best to help them make a decision based on facts.

In expressing empathy, understanding and then providing facts in patient language, we can go a long way in increasing vaccination rates and ultimately the health of our patients and our community.


Carlene Oleksyn is owner of Meridian Pharmacy in Stony Plain, Alberta, and owner and director of the Stony Plain Travel Clinic.


This infographic shows the differences between COVID-19 and colds and flu.