After a record-breaking flu year, the importance of a flu shot has never been more clear. It can save you from a miserable illness and save lives. And while it’s true that the flu shot doesn’t guarantee you won’t get sick, even if you do, a vaccine may make the illness less severe.
And that’s important when you realize that the flu killed more than 80,000 Americans last season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most flu deaths in over a decade. Another 900,000 Americans were hospitalized with the flu during the 2017-2018 season. And it took more lives of children and teenagers than any flu year on record. A flu shot can cut the risk of death among children by 65 percent, and by 51 percent in children with conditions that put them at higher risk.
Getting a flu shot is the best way to protect yourself and the lives of those around you. That’s because if the flu shot keeps you from getting sick, that means you won’t spread the illness to more vulnerable people around you, like children and seniors. The flu shot can start a chain reaction of prevention.
Still have questions? We have answers.
Why do you need a flu shot every year?
The flu vaccine helps protect against the strains of influenza virus that are most likely to spread during the flu season. The circulating flu strains change over time. So scientists track influenza viruses and predict which ones will spread during the flu season. The vaccine is then developed to target those strains. That’s why a new shot is recommended every year. This year’s vaccine cocktails protect against three or four of the major viruses expected to spread, depending on the type of vaccine you get.
Whichever one you get, you can’t get the flu from the vaccine.
Why should you get one?
Besides being a horrible way to spend a few days or more, the flu can cause severe complications. Young children, seniors, and people with underlying health issues are particularly vulnerable. But healthy adults can also become seriously ill or spread the disease to loved ones at greater risk. Getting the vaccine can lower your odds of getting sick and protect the people around you.
Who needs it?
- Everyone ages 6 months and up should get an annual vaccine (unless your doctor says otherwise).
- Those over 65 can get a special higher-dose vaccine, or a vaccine with an adjuvant — an ingredient added to increase the immune response.
- The flu vaccine is safe for pregnant women, but they, in particular, should get only the shot, not the nasal spray.
- People at high risk of complications from the flu include:
- young children (under age 5, and especially under age 2)
- adults over 65
- pregnant women
- nursing home and other long-term care residents
- people with certain medical conditions, including asthma, diabetes, chronic lung disease, kidney or liver disorders, neurological disorders, heart disease,
- people with weak immune systems
- people who are extremely overweight (BMI over 40)
When to get it
The flu season typically runs from October through May, but usually peaks between December and March. Ideally, you should get a flu shot before the flu begins to circulate in your area. It takes about two weeks for your body to produce the antibodies that will protect you from flu viruses. And there is some evidence that at least some strains of the flu vaccine may wane in effectiveness during the flu season. The CDC recommends getting a flu shot by the end of October, if possible. And children getting a flu shot for the first time need two doses at least 28 days apart, so plan a month ahead for them. Still, getting a flu shot later in the season (or earlier for that matter) is better than not getting one at all. And getting it in the morning may be better than the afternoon, according to a recent study.
Should you consider a nasal spray?
The nasal spray flu vaccine has been a popular choice for some kids (and grown-ups) who don’t like shots. But for the last few years, the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended against the nasal spray after research showed it was less effective. But the manufacturers of these vaccines have made some changes, and according to the CDC, “some data suggest this will result in improved effectiveness.” Because of that, the CDC once again recommends the nasal spray as an option for people from 2 years old to 49, with some exceptions. Pregnant women and people with certain conditions, on certain medications, or who have compromised immune systems should not get a nasal spray flu vaccine — check with your doctor to see if it’s an option for you. The AAP also supports the use of the nasal spray for children over 2 with the appropriate health status, but recommends it only for those who, for whatever reason, would not get any other flu vaccine.
What to expect
If you get the shot, expect a quick poke and some soreness at that spot. Afterward, most people are fine but some can have mild symptoms like a low grade fever, or aches. Even if you get a flu shot, you might still get sick — but you might not get as sick as if you hadn’t gotten the shot. There are a few reasons for this: It takes a couple weeks to build up immunity; the shot could turn out to be a poor match against the flu strains going around; and people with weak immune systems might not build up as much immunity as healthy people. And even when they're not well matched to the particular virus spreading in a given year, flu vaccines may provide protection against other flu strains.