You'd be forgiven if you were slightly more focused on the latest COVID-19 vaccine developments than the flu vaccine. But this annual shot deserves your attention, too.
Just this past year alone, up to 56 million Americans came down with the flu, 740,000 were hospitalized and more than 60,000 folks died from the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
This year, it may be even worse: "We anticipate a wave of COVID-19 hitting in late fall, right around the same time the flu hits," says William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
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That means you've got a risk of co-infection, which could be very dangerous for even the healthiest person. And there's a good chance hospitals will once again be overburdened with COVID-19 patients, which would leave fewer beds and fewer health workers to care for flu patients who are ill enough to be hospitalized.
That's why it's especially important to get the flu shot this year.
OK, but Does the Flu Shot Work?
In the past, many of us haven't lined up to get the vaccine. During the 2018-2019 flu season, for example, less than half of all adults (45 percent) even bothered to get jabbed. One of the reasons, says Margot Savoy, MD, MPH, Chair of Family and Community Medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, is the belief that the flu shot isn't effective.
It's true that a flu shot won't offer you total protection: A February 2020 CDC report found that this past year's flu shot was only about 45 percent effective. But research shows that getting the vaccine can make a big difference in the grand scheme of things.
During the 2018-2019 flu season, for example, flu vaccination prevented an estimated 4.4 million cases of flu, 2.3 million visits to the doctor, 58,000 hospitalizations and 3,500 deaths, per the CDC. A September 2014 study published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases found that flu vaccine reduced kids' risk of flu-related hospitalization by 74 percent, and another August 2018 CDC report found that it reduced the risk of adults being admitted to the ICU by 82 percent.
This is particularly key for older adults and pregnant women, both of whom are especially vulnerable to the flu, Dr. Schaffner says. Flu vaccines have reduced the risk of flu-associated hospitalizations among both groups by about 40 percent.
"While the shot can't completely protect against the disease, it does offer some immunity, so if you do get it, your symptoms will most likely be less severe," he adds.
Is It Safe to Get a Flu Shot This Year?
In short: yes. There are several things you can do to make sure you're being as safe as possible, though. Here's your step-by-step guide:
1. Aim to Get It by the End of October (but a Bit Later Is Fine)
The best time to get the flu shot is early fall, according to the CDC. This gives your body a couple weeks to develop immunity before flu hits, while also being late enough to make sure immunity doesn't wear off by March or April, Dr. Schaffner says.
Don't do it much earlier, either — risk of contracting the flu climbs about 16 percent for every 28 days after vaccination, according to a May 2019 study in Clinical Infectious Disease. And if you miss the mark, don't panic. Even January or February isn't too late to get vaccinated, since the flu tends to circulate through early spring.
"It's true that seasonal flu usually peaks between December and March, but it can occur as late as May," says Dr. Schaffner, who says he vaccinated patients through April this year.
2. Make an Appointment
The good news is that it's very easy to get a flu shot. It's available not only at your doctor's office, but also at most pharmacies, city health departments and even local Planned Parenthood clinics. (To find the location nearest you, check the VaccineFinder website.)
Once you've made an appointment, you should be able to fill out any paperwork online in advance, per the CDC's pandemic guidance for vaccines. This will help cut down on the time you have to spend in the doctor's office or pharmacy.
How to Get a Free Flu Shot
If you have health insurance, the vaccine is completely free (just check with your insurance company to find out if you need to go to a specific facility to receive the vaccine).
If you don't have insurance, it's $39.99 for the regular vaccine and $69.99 for the high-dose one (recommended for people ages 65 and older) at CVS pharmacies. That may not seem cheap, but "when you weigh it against the cost of having to take off work for a week because you're sick, or the cost of doctor visits, it's definitely worth it," Dr. Schaffner says.
People over the age of 65 should consider either Fluzone, the high-dose flu shot, or Fluad, which contains something called an adjuvant to promote a stronger immune response.
3. Know What to Expect When You Get There
Along with encouraging you to do your paperwork in advance, vaccine locations should be following the rest of the CDC's pandemic guidance, meaning they should:
- Screen you for symptoms of COVID-19 and any contact with persons with possible COVID-19 when you get there
- Have barriers such as clear plastic sneeze guards to limit physical contact with patients.
- Require everyone to wear a cloth face covering.
- Require the vaccine administrator to wear a medical-grade face mask and gloves while giving you the shot.
- Have you remain outside or stay in your car until you are called into the facility for your appointment.
- Enforce that at least six feet of space is kept between patients at all times.
If the facility isn't following these guidelines for some reason, feel free to walk away and make an appointment somewhere else.
4. Expect Some Redness and Soreness Afterward
Contrary to popular belief, the flu shot won't give you the flu.
"The shot itself has enough of the virus — or proteins that mimic the virus — to cause your body to have a reaction," explains Dr. Savoy.
Usually, that means nothing more than some soreness, redness and swelling at the spot where the shot was given, but some people may develop a low-grade fever, headache and body aches that can last for a day or two. "It just means that your body is doing what it's supposed to do," she says.
While it is possible to have an allergic reaction to a flu shot, it's very, very rare — only 10 cases of life-threatening anaphylaxis have been recorded for more than 7.4 million doses of flu vaccine given, according to the CDC.).
"You've got a much greater chance of being hospitalized or dying from the flu than having an allergic reaction to it," Dr. Savoy says.
Concerned About COVID-19?
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- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:2019-2020 U.S. Flu Season: Preliminary Burden Estimates
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Flu Vaccination Coverage, United States, 2018–19 Influenza Season
- Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: Interim Estimates of 2019–20 Seasonal Influenza Vaccine Effectiveness — United States, February 2020
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:Estimated Influenza Illnesses, Medical visits, and Hospitalizations Averted by Vaccination
- Journal of Infectious Diseases: Effectiveness of Influenza Vaccine Against Life-threatening RT-PCR-confirmed Influenza Illness in US Children, 2010–2012
- Vaccine: Influenza vaccine effectiveness in preventing influenza-associated intensive care admissions and attenuating severe disease among adults in New Zealand 2012–2015
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Misconceptions about Seasonal Flu and Flu Vaccines
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:Selecting Viruses for the Sea
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Seasonal Influenza Vaccine Supply for the U.S. 2020-2021 Influenza Season
- World Health Organization: Influenza Update
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Seasonal Flu Shot
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Cell-Based Flu Vaccines
- Journal of Infectious Disease: Relative Effectiveness of Influenza Vaccines Among the United States Elderly, 2018-2019
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Recombinant Influenza (Flu) Vaccine
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Fluzone High-Dose Seasonal Influenza Vaccine
- New England Journal of Medicine: Efficacy of High-Dose versus Standard-Dose Influenza Vaccine in Older Adults
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Adjuvanted Flu Vaccine
- Journal of Infectious Diseases: Relative Effectiveness of Influenza Vaccines Among the United States Elderly, 2018–2019
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Live Attenuated Influenza Vaccine [LAIV] (The Nasal Spray Flu Vaccine)
- Clinical Infectious Disease: Intraseason Waning of Influenza Vaccine Effectiveness
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Flu Vaccine and People with Egg Allergies
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Flu Vaccine Safety Information
- US Department of Health & Human Services: Will the Affordable Care Act Cover My Flu Shot