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When flu season rolls around each year, we all gear up for the first signs of the serious virus, including those trademark sneezes, runny noses, and body aches. But catching influenza isn’t a guarantee, especially if you understand how to prevent the flu.
So, what's the simplest, most effective way of warding off the flu from October to May? It’s the annual flu shot, which has only become more important since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Every year, public health officials plead with Americans to get the flu shot. And every year, half of all Americans ignore those pleas. Last year, for example, only 52.1% of people at least six months old received the flu vaccine, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Although that’s an increase from previous years, it’s still not great—especially since the vaccines are proven to decrease the likelihood of becoming severely ill or passing the flu to others.
So, why should you get the flu shot? And how else can you prevent the flu this season? Here’s what doctors say.
How can you prevent the flu?
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: “Nothing is more important than the influenza vaccine, which should be given to everyone older than six months of age,” says William Norcross, M.D., a professor of family medicine at the University of California, San Diego.
There are two main types of influenza virus that humans can contract: influenza A and influenza B, says Kyle Sue, M.D., a clinical assistant professor of family medicine at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada. Each of these types can be further broken down into different influenza “strains,” he says, and the public health experts who craft the flu vaccine each year do their best to hypothesize which of these strains will be most common during the coming winter.
Sometimes they guess accurately; other times, not so much. At its best, the flu vaccine can lower your risk of illness by up to 60%, per the CDC. During worse years for the vaccine, the shot may not help you dodge the virus entirely, but it might reduce the duration and severity of your illness; one 2015 study found vaccinated people were less likely to develop high fevers and muscle aches and tended to have milder respiratory symptoms than those who were not vaccinated. The flu shot also reduces the risk you’ll end up in the hospital or ICU with a nasty case of the flu, CDC research shows. “Even partial effectiveness is better than zero,” Dr. Sue says.
Plus, the flu shot also reduces the odds that you’ll spread the flu among your community, including to someone who may be especially vulnerable to the virus, including young children, pregnant women, anyone with a serious chronic disease, and adults over 50. (For these at-risk groups, a flu shot is especially important, the CDC warns.) Many older and immunocompromised people just don’t have a strong response to the flu vaccine, explains Robert Jacobson, M.D., a pediatrics and flu expert at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, so you’ll be protecting them, too.
The CDC recommends that everyone receive the flu vaccine before the end of October, when the flu begins to circulate at a higher level, although it’s still worth the effort after this deadline. (The season usually peaks from December through February.)
There are plenty of places to get the flu vaccine, many of which offer it for free, including at your doctor’s office, urgent care clinic, office, pharmacy, and grocery store. It takes two weeks from your shot to consider yourself fully vaccinated, and common side effects are generally minimal, including arm soreness, low-grade fever, and fatigue.
Many of the public health measures popularized by the pandemic also work well against the influenza virus, Dr. Jacobson says. Wash and sanitize your hands frequently, practice social distancing whenever possible, avoid large gatherings in poorly ventilated indoor spaces, wear a mask in indoor public settings, and stay home if you feel sick. The COVID-19 vaccine does not protect against the flu (or the common cold, for that matter), or vice-versa, so it’s imperative that you receive all vaccinations for which you are eligible—you can even get both at once.
Why is this year’s flu vaccine so important?
As last year’s predictions of a “twindemic” of flu and COVID-19 warned, the consequences could be dire if both illnesses run rampant this year. Dr. Jacobson says it’s more important than ever to get your flu shot because of the stress influenza could place on already strained resources and healthcare systems, like hospitals.
This year (like last year), people need to figure out if they have the flu or COVID-19. “Cases of flu require consideration of COVID-19 infection, as the symptoms are similar,” Dr. Jacobson says, including fever, cough, sore throat, and headache. “That means testing and quarantining until COVID-19 is ruled out, and that uses up health care resources that could otherwise help fight the pandemic.” The more hospital beds that can remain open for patients infected with SARS-CoV-2, the better.
Not even a year ago, the COVID-19 vaccines still felt like some far-off dream, and the relief they brought is nothing short of miraculous. The seasonal flu vaccine is just as much of a marvel—especially considering just how much damage the flu can do.
The CDC estimates that during the 2019–2020 flu season, as many as 56 million Americans became sick with the influenza virus; up to 740,000 of those people were hospitalized, and as many as 62,000 died. Last season, largely thanks to social distancing, masking, and an increase in vaccinations, the flu all but disappeared—a bright spot during a surge in COVID-19 infections.
But that could be bad news for this year’s just-starting flu season: “Last year’s lack of cases worldwide may leave the globe with less natural immunity to this season’s outbreaks,” Dr. Jacobson explains. “That means without our vaccinations this year, we may be more exposed and more likely to get ill with influenza.”
The bottom line
The benefits of getting a flu shot far outweigh the exceedingly minimal risk of an adverse reaction. If you’re worried about side effects, talk to your doctor about them—but don’t skip your flu shot. The flu vaccine “clearly saves lives and diminishes suffering,” Dr. Norcross says, and it’s never been more important to step up and protect your own health and that of your community.
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