Do you get a flu shot every year? Once in a while? Or not at all?
Fall is here, and it’s time to start thinking about flu shots again. No matter where you find yourself on the flu vaccine decision spectrum, there are some additional things to consider for this year as this is the first time we are all dealing with flu season in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. And so, what should you know and how should you prepare for this flu season?
The annual flu season starts usually in the fall and goes through winter and into spring. Flu is generally most active between October and April but can start earlier and last longer in some years. According to the Centers for Disease control (CDC), during the 2019–2020 season there were an estimated 39 million to 56 million flu illnesses; 18 million to 26 million flu-related medical visits; 410,000 to 740,000 hospitalizations; and 24,000 to 62,000 deaths due to flu.
Who should get a flu shot?
Historically, fewer than half of all Americans get flu vaccinations, but everyone can benefit from getting a flu shot. Certain groups are at higher risk for serious complications from the flu, including:
- Older adults who are over the age of 65 years,
- Children under the age of 5,
- Pregnant women,
- Native Americans,
- People who live in nursing homes or long-term care facilities, and
- Individuals with chronic conditions including asthma, auto-immune disease, cancer, cardiovascular disease, chronic lung disease, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, kidney and liver diseases, obesity, and a history of stroke.
So, it is especially important that anyone who has these risks gets a flu shot every year. But even if you do not have these risks, you can benefit from a flu shot as it can help you to not get sick with the flu and if you do get sick, the flu vaccination can help make your symptoms less severe and the time that you are sick shorter.
Why do I need a flu shot every year?
The flu virus mutates every year and the severity of the flu virus also varies yearly. Scientists and epidemiologists make predictions on which strains of the flu will circulate the following flu season. Based on these predictions, the flu vaccines change every year, so they provide the best protection against the type of flu that is predicted to be circulating that season.
Can we predict how bad the flu will be this year?
Even though no one knows for certain how this flu season will unfold, predictions of how bad the flu season will be in the Northern Hemisphere can usually be correlated with the severity of the flu season in the Southern Hemisphere. Seasons in the southern and northern hemispheres are opposite. Meaning, influenza outbreaks in the Southern Hemisphere occur during their fall and winter, which are spring and summer in the Northern Hemisphere. This year, countries in the Southern Hemisphere, like Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, New Zealand, and South Africa, have seen a significantly lower number of confirmed flu cases, flu-related complications, hospitalizations, and deaths. The scientific community attributes this phenomenon to social distancing and infection prevention measures aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19. However, there are no guarantees that an identical scenario will play out in the Northern Hemisphere and the United States.
How will COVID-19 affect this year’s flu season?
COVID-19 and influenza are different diseases but are both caused by a virus. Both can have serious symptoms and can even lead to death. There is a vaccine available to protect you against the flu, but a vaccine for COVID-19 is not yet available.
Precautions to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 can also help prevent the spread of the flu. Both viruses are essentially transmitted the same way—by respiratory droplets and close contact with infected individuals or by touching contaminated surfaces and then touching one’s face. Measures used to combat the spread of COVID-19, such as wearing masks, washing your hands frequently, increased disinfection, and social distancing, are also helpful in preventing the spread of flu.
Flu shots clinics may look different this year. Most places where you would traditionally get your flu shot each year, such as a clinic or pharmacy, will likely schedule their flu appointment so there is increased time between patients. This allows for social distancing and proper disinfection between patients. Drive-thru flu shots may be more common this year; this approach can help to reduce the exposure of individuals to flu, COVID-19, and each other while still allowing them to have their vaccination.
What should I do this flu season?
While the course of the upcoming months remains uncertain, the CDC continues to recommend flu shots for everyone 6 months and older. There are some people who cannot get the flu vaccine, so it is best to discuss this with your primary healthcare provider or pharmacist. The CDC recommends getting a flu shot in September or October.
Getting a flu vaccine by the end of October provides enough time to build immunity before the usual peak in December while also protecting the body through the season up until the end of March. It takes about two weeks after a flu shot for the body to build immunity against influenza. However, vaccination in later months is still recommended for those who were not able to get their flu shot earlier. The immune response tends to be weaker in older individuals and thus a high-dose flu vaccine is recommended for those 65 years old and above.
Even though a flu vaccine is the best available method to protect against influenza, it does not provide fully guaranteed protection. Vaccine effectiveness differs from year to year. According to CDC estimates flu vaccine effectiveness in the seasons from 2004 to 2018 ranged from 10% to 60% with an average of about 40%. Yet even though a flu shot may not guarantee complete effectiveness, it can reduce the severity of symptoms and prevent complications in those who get the flu after being vaccinated.
Whether someone gets a flu vaccine or not, preventive measures such as frequent handwashing, social distancing, avoiding sick contacts, wearing a mask, covering coughs and sneezes, and frequent disinfecting of objects and surfaces continue to be critically important.
Although flu season occurs every year, this flu season is likely to be different from any season in the past. So, now might be a good time to consider the available information and make a decision about getting your flu shot. Will you get yours?
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