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Fact Checked

Why you need a flu vaccine this year

With all the talk about COVID-19, it’s easy to forget about getting your yearly flu shot. But even though you are busy with hand-washing, mask-wearing, and social distancing, it’s still vital to show up for your annual flu vaccine. Here’s why. 

Flu Statistics 

First, check out some of these alarming statistics from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). In the United States from October 1, 2019, through April 4, 2020, there have been: 

  • 39 to 56 million flu illnesses 
  • 18 to 26 million flu-related medical visits 
  • 410,000 to 740,000 hospitalizations due to flu 
  • 24,000 to 62,000 deaths from flu 

Symptoms of the Flu 

Symptoms of the flu can be very severe and can keep you off your feet for up to several weeks. Common symptoms of influenza may include fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, sore throat, nasal congestion, body aches, and headache. 

In addition to these symptoms, complications may occur, such as pneumonia, lung or heart problems, stroke, sepsis, organ failure, secondary infections, and death. Older adults, pregnant women, and patients with other medical conditions are at higher risk for complications. 

Getting an annual flu vaccine is the best way to prevent flu and its complications, including hospitalizations and death. 

How Does the Flu Shot Work? 

The flu vaccine signals your body to make antibodies, which help protect your body against the flu. The process takes about two weeks to start working. Each year the vaccine is formulated to work against the viruses that are expected to be most prevalent. You can find out more about the many vaccines that are available here

Currently, there is no preference for a specific vaccine. Instead, the “CDC recommends use of any licensed, age-appropriate influenza vaccine.”

Does the Flu Shot Work? 

While the exact numbers of flu illness prevented may vary every year, studies have shown that flu vaccines benefit public health. For example, flu vaccines in the 2017/2018 season prevented over 6 million illnesses, 91,000 hospitalizations, and almost 6,000 deaths. Getting the flu shot can help you and those around you, especially those who are more vulnerable, such as children, pregnant women, and people with chronic medical conditions. 

Who Should Receive the Flu Shot? 

Everyone over the age of 6 months needs a flu shot, with very few exceptions. The CDC’s ACIP (Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices) has made this recommendation every year since 2010. 

Who should not get a flu shot? Patients under six months old, and patients with life-threatening allergies to flu vaccines or it’s ingredients. 

Patients with an egg allergy or a history of Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a paralyzing illness, should consult their healthcare provider for advice. 

If you are not feeling well, it’s best to wait until you feel better to get your flu shot. 

Will the flu Shot Offer Any Protection from COVID-19? 

The flu shot will not offer protection against the virus that causes COVID-19. However, according to Harvard Medical School, it is still essential to get the flu shot to prevent seasonal flu - and even if the flu shot does not offer complete protection, it can reduce the severity of symptoms. 

When Should I Get the Flu Shot? 

The CDC and ACIP recommend that you receive the flu shot by the end of October. They recently added a recommendation not to vaccinate too early. “Vaccinating early – for example, in July or August –may lead to reduced protection against influenza later in the season, particularly among older adults.”

Children who need two doses (children who are 6 months to 8 years old) should get the first dose as soon as the vaccine is available, so that the second dose, which is given four weeks later, can be administered by the end of October. 

If November 1st rolls around, and you didn’t get your flu shot yet, it’s not too late. You can still get a flu shot as long as the flu is going around, even through early spring. 

Where Can I Get a Flu Shot? 

Flu shots are now more accessible than ever. The CDC has a flu shot finder feature, where you can type in your zip code and find a list of available locations. 

Usually, you can visit your local pharmacy (tip: call ahead to see if you can schedule an appointment for a time when the pharmacist isn’t as busy), schedule an appointment with your regular physician, go to a clinic/urgent care center for a flu shot, or get a flu shot at your workplace, school, or local health department. Always call ahead to confirm availability and schedule. 

The Bottom Line 

It’s essential to add getting a flu shot for every member of your family to your to-do list and try to do so in September or October. By the time you’re enjoying Halloween candy, you’ll know that your family is protected against the flu. 

References 
2019-2020 U.S. Flu Season: Preliminary Burden Estimates. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/preliminary-in-season-estimates.htm

Accessed July 25, 2020.

Similarities and Differences between Flu and COVID-19. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/flu-vs-covid19.htm Accessed July 25, 2020.

Key Facts About Seasonal Flu Vaccine. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/prevent/keyfacts.htm Accessed July 25, 2020.

Vaccine Effectiveness: How Well Do the Flu Vaccines Work? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/vaccines-work/vaccineeffect.htm Accessed July 25, 2020

COVID-19 basics. Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School.  https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/covid-19-basics Accessed July 25, 2020

Frequently Asked Influenza (Flu) Questions: 2019-2020 Season. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/season/faq-flu-season-2019-2020.htm Accessed July 25, 2020.

Published July 31st, 2020 by Dr. Karen Berger, PharmD
Fact Checked by Chris Riley

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