Are you ready for the flu season? Influenza is always unpredictable, but experts are preparing for what may be a bad flu year. They point to a worse than usual Australian flu season, which happens during winter Down Under (also known as summer in the US). “In general, we get in our season what the Southern Hemisphere got in the season immediately preceding us," said Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the United States' National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The Australian comparison is not a perfect one, but Fauci said a bad flu season for the Northern Hemisphere would be an "intelligent guess."
That means getting a flu shot may be especially important this year.
What is a flu shot?
The flu vaccine protects 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 you should get one?
Besides being a horrible way to spend a few days or more, the flu can cause severe complications. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the flu is responsible for up to 710,000 hospitalizations and 56,000 deaths per year. 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, or 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 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 a one at all. And getting it in the morning may be better than the afternoon, according to a recent study.
Should you get a nasal spray this year?
In past years, the vaccine was available both as an injection (shot), or as a nasal spray (mist). But research showed a lack of effectiveness of the nasal spray during the 2015-2016 flu season. Because of that, the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics don’t currently recommend the nasal spray. That shouldn’t keep you from getting your shot — having the flu is far worse than a quick stick!
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 sniffles, a low fever, tiredness, or achy joints.
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 while 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.
- 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.