top of page

Healthy Bodies, Toxic Medicines: Exploring College Students and the Flu

By Maryann Makosiej

Artwork by Vayl Sorensen

Have you ever heard of the old wives tale that wet hair makes you sick? Or, how about how wearing the right shoes can get you an A on a paper? Chances are, you were probably talked into a belief like this, and although it may not be backed by science, you might still continue with the practice. A new paper entitled “Healthy Bodies, Toxic Medicines: College Students and the Rhetorics of Flu Vaccination” examined common beliefs and practices surrounding flu vaccinations by surveying undergraduate students at multiple universities in the Spring of 2012. The research was particularly focused on the method of rhetorical analysis-- that is, how persuasive certain words or phrases were-- in examining statements that these students made about the flu and the flu vaccine. The study also focused on how to address concerns that at-risk groups (like college students) have when deciding about a flu vaccine.

Influenza (flu) is a moderate to severe viral respiratory illness with local and global consequences. It can cause hospitalization and death, particularly to at-risk groups like the young, elderly, and curiously, college students. The impact of flu outbreaks on college campuses is something that has been studied before. Research has shown that universities and students are especially vulnerable to campus outbreaks because faculty, students, and staff living in close quarters. Local health centers are easily overwhelmed by demand and absenteeism.

Moreover, college students are difficult to vaccinate. Although vaccination rates for children older than 6 months to adults younger than 24 years are not available by the CDC, this study reported the overall vaccination rate for adults older than 18 was only 22.7 percent (Lawrence, 2012)!

To study flu vaccination rhetoric used specially by college students, this study used an open- and closed-ended online survey that was distributed at the end of the flu season (April-May). 659 college undergraduates responded (Lawrence, 2012).

The study found that there were three major arguments against receiving the flu vaccine. The first essentially premised that “the flu shot causes disease”. This was a category that relied on personal experience (“I got the flu shot and got sick anyway”) of either the respondent or the respondent’s circle. A common rationale was that the experience of vaccinating coincides with the experience of illness. If the vaccination had not occurred, the person in question could have stayed healthy. Other arguments included technical responses about the vaccine being a live virus, human antibodies, etc.

A second major category was that the “flu vaccine is a toxin” or “the body is better on its own”. In general, respondents here wanted to avoid something that could harm the body’s otherwise sound response to an infectious agent or wanted to prevent the vaccine from harming the body directly. The “toxic medicine” argument tended to avoid scientific evidence or even personal experience-- instead, they were mostly reflective of the “perceptions of one’s own body”.

A third major category was “no-one knows the long-term impact of flu vaccination”. These comments tended to worry of possible epidemics, long-term vaccine side effects, and antibiotic and viral resistance. The main argument is although there may be a short-term benefit to vaccination, the long-term risk is too great.

To conclude, “Healthy Bodies, Toxic Medicines” examined rhetoric surrounding the flu and flu vaccination raised by undergraduate students. Although the study is limited and cannot be generalized to a larger populations, it showed that at-risk groups like college students have real, diverse concerns and arguments for and against getting the flu vaccine. More broadly, these concerns bring into question the larger role of medicine and public health. So, whether it be your grandmother remarking on your wet hair, those trusty, lucky shoes, or deciding about a flu vaccine, sometimes past experiences and beliefs can alter how we think about the future.


Lawrence H. Y. (2014). Healthy bodies, toxic medicines: college students and the rhetorics of flu vaccination. The Yale journal of biology and medicine, 87(4), 423-37.

22 views0 comments


bottom of page