Flu Shots, Swine Flu, and Fibromyalgia: Should Pain Patients Get Vaccinated?

A shot may trigger fibro flare-ups, but offers protection from more serious flu complications.
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No one wants the aches, fever, and nausea associated with influenza—especially not fibromyalgia patients who already deal with chronic pain and discomfort on a daily basis. But is a shot the best option for people with potentially compromised immune systems?

Jessica Capelle, a 35-year-old part-time lawyer from Houston, wants to get a flu shot this year. But as her fibromyalgia has worsened over time, she says she's become more sensitive to vaccines—a side effect often reported by people with chronic pain.

Based on anecdotal evidence, it does seem that vaccines, for influenza or otherwise, could temporarily increase or trigger fibromyalgia symptoms. Seasonal flu shots are made from inactivated (dead) viruses, which could theoretically trigger flu-like symptoms or allergic reactions. (Another type of flu vaccine, administered through a nasal spray, is made from live, weakened influenza viruses and is not recommended for people with underlying medical conditions.)

Since there is little formal research backing these experiences, however, doctors' recommendations vary almost as much as patients' opinions. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that you cannot catch the flu from a vaccine, it does note that minor side effects from the shot can include soreness at the injection site, aches, and a low-grade fever—and that's in perfectly healthy people.

Added swine flu concern
There are even more questions to be answered this year, thanks to the outbreak of the H1N1 influenza virus, commonly referred to as swine flu. Two vaccines for swine flu—a nasal spray that contains weakened virus and a shot that contains inactivated virus—were approved in September, but skepticism and worry about such new vaccines may prevent people from taking advantage of them.

Despite potential complications, fibromyalgia patients should consider getting both vaccinations, says Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, the medical director of the Fibromyalgia and Fatigue Centers, which are located throughout the United States. "People with severe chronic illnesses that put them more at risk [for dangerous complications of the flu] are more likely to get benefit than harm from the vaccine," he says.

But that doesn't mean fibromyalgia patients must get either vaccine. The decision for many, like Capelle, to vaccinate or not to vaccinate can be a frustrating toss-up. "The last three times I've gotten a flu shot, I ended up in bed for three weeks just from the shot," she says. "Last year I didn't get one and got the flu."

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Lead writer: Sarah Klein
Last Updated: September 24, 2009

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