It’s that time of year again … flu season is just around the corner, and we need to get ready for it.
While Australia and other countries in the Southern Hemisphere had an exceptionally mild flu season this year, we can’t assume that it will be the same here. Public health officials in those countries took flu very seriously this year. They encouraged more flu vaccination and strict mask wearing and physical distancing for COVID. We can’t count on that to be the case for us.
In fact, this year, getting your flu vaccine is more important than ever. As COVID-19 continues to threaten our health, anything we can do to lessen the chance of adding another infection into the mix is critical.
We know that wearing masks, washing hands, and sanitizing surfaces help protect us from both coronavirus and the flu. But for the flu, we already have a vaccine in our arsenal. Though it’s not perfect, the flu vaccine prevents millions of infections and doctor’s visits every year. Data from the 2018-2019 flu season showed that it prevented over 50,000 hospitalizations and more than 3,000 deaths. This kind of protection is especially important for those of us most at risk for complications from the flu, including pregnant women, infants and young children, the elderly, and those with long-term medical conditions.
Here are a few things to know about the flu vaccine as we head into the season:
Getting the vaccine could keep you out of the hospital
I sometimes hear people say, “If I might still get the flu anyway, why even bother getting vaccinated?” Yes, you might still get the flu, but if you’ve been vaccinated, your risk of serious complications decreases significantly. And at a time when we’re at risk of running out of hospital and ICU beds, preventing flu-related hospitalization is key. Some studies have found a 75% decreased risk of intensive care admissions for children and about a 40% decrease in hospitalization for older adults after flu vaccination.
That’s why, with very rare exceptions, the flu vaccine is recommended for EVERYONE over 6 months old.
Side effects are just side effects, not the flu itself
Like any medical treatment, there can be side effects from the flu vaccines. The good news is that the most common side effects of the flu vaccine are mild and go away on their own in a few days. Some people will have soreness where they got the shot, mild fever, muscle aches, and headaches. These effects are not an allergy and are NOT the flu. It’s just your immune response ramping up after the vaccine.
My kids and I experience these effects every year after the flu shot, so we’ve started to time our shots for Friday so that we have time to rest over the weekend.
Timing matters, but it isn’t everything
As you’re considering when to get your flu vaccine, it’s important to remember that it takes about 2 weeks after you get the vaccine to develop a protective antibody response. Some people feel that it’s best to get it right when the flu shot become available (August). Others suggest waiting so the antibody protection lasts later into the season, and this is especially true for older adults, where studies have shown reduced protection from the flu as the season wears on.
The CDC recommends getting the shot in early fall (September, end of October at the latest), but people who miss this timeframe should still get the vaccine, even through January (sometimes even later than that depending on how bad a particular flu season is.)
Children who are between 6 months and 8 years old and who have NEVER gotten the flu vaccine before need two doses at least 4 weeks apart. If your child falls into this category, you may want to start the process earlier so they can get their second shot and be fully protected by October.
If you’re afraid of needles, it comes in a spray too
Along with flu shots, the nasal spray vaccine is approved again for this season. The nasal spray vaccine can be given to people between 2 and 49 who aren’t pregnant. People with certain medical conditions like asthma and weakened immune systems shouldn’t get the nasal spray version. There are also specially dosed flu shots for adults over 65 and even flu shots for people who have egg allergies.
When it comes to what type of vaccine to get, the CDC doesn’t recommend one over another, so it’s best to talk to your doctor to choose the one that works best for you and your family.
Getting a flu vaccine is crucial this season, so if you don’t usually get a flu shot, now’s a good time to start. And if flu vaccination is a normal annual practice for you, you can feel good knowing that your healthy choice has even more value this year.