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The air is getting cooler and the leaves are slowly but surely changing colors, so you know what that means—flu shot season is officially here! Flu season—which spikes between December and February, though it can linger into May, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)—always drums up a host of questions and misinformation about the actual vaccine, and thus, the importance of getting vaccinated is often muddled. So, in order to help educate and guide you toward the best decision for you and your body, we've compiled all the pertinent info you need to know before booking your vaccine appointment.
The flu (influenza) itself has quite literally plagued human existence since before we first started recording illnesses back in B.C. times, as a 2016 article published in the Journal of Preventative Medicine and Hygiene reads. But it wasn't until the 1930s that we began experimenting with vaccinations. By December 1942, several large vaccine studies "provided the first official proof that inactivated influenza vaccines could yield effective protection against flu epidemics," the article states, and later that year, the first flu vaccine for use by the general public was issued.
Since then, scientists have and continue to tailor the annual flu vaccine to ward off new and re-emerging strains of influenza that could cause national and global pandemics. The CDC reports that the flu vaccine prevented an estimated 4.4 million influenza illnesses, 2.3 million influenza-associated medical visits, 58,000 influenza-associated hospitalizations, and 3,500 influenza-associated deaths during the 2018-2019 flu season. If more people get their flu shots on an annual basis, the yearly CDC-estimated 9.3 million to 49 million flu-related illnesses would most likely greatly decrease.
Of course, before you get the flu shot, we still urge you to contact your doctor to find out the best option for you and to ask further questions. But here are the basics of flu shot season:
Should I get a flu shot this year?
Yes, you should absolutely get a flu shot this year—and every year—to ensure your body is equipped with the proper amount of antibodies to fight off potential flu infection. If you're wondering how often you should get a flu shot, the CDC and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommend that every American over the age of six months receive a flu vaccine every flu season; however, getting a flu shot during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is even more important because you can help lessen the strain on the healthcare system by avoiding flu-derived illness and potential hospitalization.
What are the benefits of flu shots?
There are myriad benefits of receiving a flu shot, with the biggest one being that you will be immune from the influenza virus (aka the flu) after vaccination. Receiving the shot lessens your chances of going to the doctor with the flu by 40-60%, the CDC reports.
Furthermore, those of us with chronic health issues like heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes can avoid the risk of hospitalization due to complications caused by the flu, including but not limited to blood sugar spikes/drops, restricted airways and oxygen flow, and weakened immune systems. AgingCare.com notes that the influenza virus can lead to more serious illnesses like pneumonia and bronchitis, which could be fatal, especially for seniors. The site also notes that adults 65 and older accounted for between 70 and 85% of flu-related fatalities and between 50 and 70% of flu-related hospitalizations in recent flu seasons recorded by the CDC.
The vaccination can even prevent flu-associated acute respiratory infection in pregnant people, the CDC reports, as well as protect an unborn baby from flu for several months after birth. A 2018 study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases showed that pregnant women who received their flu vaccines between 2010 and 2016 were 40% less likely to be hospitalized due to flu-related causes.
How does the flu shot work?
When you get a flu vaccine—usually a shot administered into the upper arm—you expose your body to a very small amount of the flu virus (that is already considered dead), thus allowing your body to develop antibodies over the course of about two weeks. These antibodies are proteins that recognize and ward off viruses, like influenza strains, that may have entered your bloodstream. Because these antibodies decline over time, and flu strains change from season to season, you need to receive flu shots on an annual basis to maintain a healthy amount of antibodies and protect yourself from getting sick.
On an annual basis, the World Health Organization (WHO) tracks flu strains and is able to predict which strains will be circulating the Northern Hemisphere in the upcoming season. Vaccine manufacturers then make new vaccines each year based on these predictions, and the vaccines usually protect against three to four different flu varieties at a given time.
When should I get the flu shot?
It's best to get your flu shot in early fall and, if possible, no later than the end of October. Because it takes about 10 to 14 days for antibodies to form, you want to be ready to ward off the virus when flu season hits in late fall and into early winter. Getting your flu shot too early in the season (in July or August, for example) is not recommended because early vaccination is linked to reduced protection from the flu later in the season, as the CDC states. This is because your antibodies are not as strong as they once were in the weeks following your vaccination. "Protection from influenza vaccine is thought to persist for at least six months," Immunize.org reported. "Protection declines over time because of waning antibody levels and because of changes in circulating influenza viruses from year to year."
How much does the flu shot cost?
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) states that all health insurers must cover all federally recommended vaccines, so if you're insured, your flu shot should be free. You can contact your health insurance provider to ensure that a flu shot is covered by your plan. Then, schedule an appointment to receive your free flu shot, either at your local pharmacy or at your doctor's office.
If you are not insured, you can expect to pay anywhere from $20 to $70 to get a flu shot at your local pharmacy or supermarket pharmacy. Some locations will give discount shots to seniors or offer a coupon to use on a pharmacy or supermarket purchase when you get vaccinated.
Does getting the flu shot lessen my risk of getting coronavirus (COVID-19)?
No. As of right now, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that a flu vaccine will prevent you from contracting COVID-19, nor will a flu vaccine increase your chances of getting COVID-19, as one early incorrect study reported. Unlike seasonal cases of the flu, the coronavirus cannot effectively be treated with antiviral drugs, as Harvard Health notes.
Even though the flu vaccine does not ward off coronavirus, it's still vital to get vaccinated during the COVID-19 crisis because it is possible to get both the flu and COVID-19 at the same time, which could be really problematic, especially for the elderly and/or those with compromised immune systems.
Dr. Daren Wu, chief medical officer at Open Door Family Medical Center, told CNET, "Our minds are on COVID-19, but getting the flu will lower your immune system and can make you more susceptible to all sorts of secondary infections, including bacterial infections and other viruses such as COVID-19."
Can the flu shot make you sick?
No. According to the CDC, the actual flu vaccine will not make you sick because the vaccine is made with inactivated (dead) flu viruses or with a single flu virus protein. Some people do, however, experience mild side effects after getting vaccinated, as the CDC states, including soreness, redness, tenderness, or swelling where the shot was administered.
Others may experience low-grade fever, headache, and muscle aches, which can be confused for flu symptoms, though these only last one or two days after vaccination. These side effects could be due to an allergic reaction to the mercury-based preservative thimerosal, which is used in some multi-dose vials of the flu vaccine, or it can be an allergic reaction to eggs, which are used to develop some types of flu vaccinations. The good news is there are egg-free vaccines available, and your doctor can guide you toward the right one if an egg allergy is present. As always, if side effects are severe, seek medical help immediately.
If you do become ill after receiving the vaccine, you could be suffering from another respiratory illness besides the flu, such as the common cold (rhinoviruses). Or, you may have been exposed to a flu virus right before getting the flu shot, which means your body has not yet built up the immunity to fight off the virus. The incubation period for the flu—meaning how long it takes for flu symptoms to appear after infection—is anywhere from two to four days. So, if you are infected on a Wednesday and get your shot on a Saturday, it's probably too late for the shot to be effective.
In some rarer incidents, a person may be exposed to one of the strains of flu that the vaccine does not protect against. "Most flu vaccines in the United States protect against four different flu viruses (“quadrivalent”); an influenza A (H1N1) virus, an influenza A (H3N2) virus, and two influenza B viruses," the CDC website explained, but new, less common strains of influenza emerge all the time. Or the vaccine can fail due to certain circumstances based on a person's health or age. Even if this occurs, the vaccine will still likely lessen the severity of any potential illness and its symptoms. A 2017 study in Clinical Infectious Diseases found that vaccinated hospitalized adults were 52-79% less likely to die than unvaccinated patients.
Are there other types of flu vaccines available?
Yes. Aside from the standard flu shot, there is also a nasal spray that your doctor can give you to help build an immunity against the flu. The nasal spray is "as effective against influenza B viruses and influenza A (H3N2) viruses as inactivated influenza vaccines [standard flu shots] but was less effective than inactivated flu vaccines against the 2009 pandemic H1N1 viruses," the CDC found. However, since the 2017-2018 flu season, the nasal spray manufacturer has introduced new influenza A (H1N1) vaccine virus ingredients in production, but no effectiveness estimates have been reported in recent years. As the CDC states, data from other countries proves the nasal spray is similar in effectiveness to that of standard flu shots in children.
Depending on your current health situation, allergies, and/or age, your doctor might want to tailor your flu shot to better fit your circumstances.
The bottom line is this: Get your flu shot by the end of October to ensure you're protected this flu season. Keep washing your hands, refrain from touching your face, practice social distancing and mask-wearing anytime you're out in public, and encourage others to get their flu shot this year (and every year) as well.