What is a flu shot?
The flu vaccine protects against the strains of influenza virus that are most likely to go around each flu season. Whichever you get, you can't get the flu from the vaccine.
The common flu strains are different from year to year, and each year scientists predict which ones the vaccine should target for the next flu season. That's why experts recommend a new shot each flu season, which runs from October through May (but is usually worst between December and February).
This year's cocktails protect against three or four of the major viruses expected, depending on the particular brand you get (you can ask your doctor or pharmacist for details).
Why is it important?
Besides being a horrible way to spend a few days or more, the flu can cause lasting weakness and other severe complications. Flu and pneumonia (a common complication) together rank in the top 10 causes of death in the United States. Getting the vaccine can lower your odds of getting sick.
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.
- The flu vaccine is safe for pregnant women, but they should only get the shot (not the nasal spray, more on that later).
Those at high risk of complications include:
- young children (under age 5 but especially under age 2)
- adults over 65
- pregnant women
- nursing home residents
- people with certain medical conditions including asthma, diabetes, and heart disease
- people with weak immune systems
- people who are extremely overweight (BMI over 40)
Is there a nasal spray this year?
Usually, the vaccine comes as an injection (shot) or as a nasal spray (mist) with a weakened virus. In past years people ages 2 to 49 could get the nasal spray but sadly, it's not likely to be offered this year.
At least one study has found this type of vaccine is not effective, so the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics don't recommend it for the current season. We hope that won’t keep you from getting your shot — trust us, having the flu is far worse than a quick stick!
When should I get it?
It's best to get it early in the flu season to protect you as long as possible. By end of October is best, according to the experts at the CDC. Getting it in the morning may be better than the afternoon, according to a recent study.
What to expect
If you get the shot, expect a quick poke and some soreness at the spot. The nasal spray is painless — it just gets squirted up your nose while you breathe in.
Afterwards, most people are fine but some can have mild symptoms like sniffles, a low fever, tiredness, or achy joints.
Good to know
Even if you get a flu shot, you might still get sick — but chances are you won't get as sick as someone without the shot. There are a few reasons for this: it takes a while to build up immunity; the shot could turn out to be a weak match against the flu strains going around; and people with weak immune systems might not build up as much immunity as healthy people.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Influenza (Flu). CDC website.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Immunization Schedules for Adults. CDC website.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Vaccination: Who Should Do It, Who Should Not, and Who Should Take Precautions. CDC website.