It’s October, so chances are good that you’ve started seeing signs at your local pharmacy and even your local supermarket about getting the flu shot. Influenza is a respiratory infection that can cause serious complications, particularly to young children, older adults, and people with certain medical conditions. Influenza vaccines, though not 100% effective, are the best way to prevent the misery of the flu and its complications.
Flu season usually starts in October and peaks in December, since the virus thrives in winter’s lower humidity and cooler temps. But the vaccine takes some time to kick in. It takes about two weeks for the flu shot to take full effect. If you’re exposed to the influenza virus shortly before or during that time, you might catch the flu. The Centers for Disease Control recommend getting vaccinated early in the fall, at least before the end of October. (If you forget until January or later, it can still be beneficial to go for the shot.) While it’s impossible to predict what kind of flu season 2018-2019 will bring, the latest iteration of the vaccine has been updated so it’s a better match for the circulating strands of flu virus we’re most likely to encounter, according to the CDC.
According to the Mayo Clinic, this year’s annual flu shot will offer protection against three or four of the influenza viruses expected to be in circulation this flu season. A high-dose flu vaccine also will be available for adults age 65 and older, so if you are this age or older, be sure to ask your doctor if you should get this higher dosage.
Because flu viruses evolve so quickly, last year’s vaccine may not protect you from this year’s viruses. New flu vaccines are released every year to keep up with rapidly adapting flu viruses.
When you get vaccinated, your immune system produces antibodies to protect you from the viruses included in the vaccine. But, antibody levels may decline over time — another reason to get a flu shot every year.
Who Should Get the Flu Shot?
The CDC recommends that everyone six months of age or older be vaccinated annually against influenza. That amounts to approximately 296 million people. People who have these chronic medical conditions have an increased risk for influenza complications. Examples include:
Cancer or cancer treatment
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
Kidney or liver disease
Between 5% and 20% of people who aren’t vaccinated will develop flu infections. Reviews of past studies have found that, on average, the flu vaccine is about 60% effective for adults between 18 and 64 years. The vaccine may sometimes be less effective, but it can also be more effective too. In some years, it can be up to 90% effective at preventing the flu.
Even when the vaccine doesn’t completely prevent the flu, it may lessen the severity of your illness and the risk of serious complications.
Who Should Check with Their Doctor First?
Check with your doctor before receiving a flu vaccine if you’re allergic to eggs. Most types of flu vaccines contain a small amount of egg protein. If you have a mild egg allergy — you only get hives from eating eggs, for example — you can receive the flu shot without any additional precautions. If you have a severe egg allergy, you should be vaccinated in a medical setting and be supervised by a doctor who is able to recognize and manage severe allergic conditions.
There are also flu vaccines that don’t contain egg proteins and are Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved for use in people age 18 and older. Consult your doctor about your options.
The flu vaccine isn’t recommended for anyone who had a severe reaction to a previous flu vaccine. Check with your doctor first, though. Some reactions might not be related to the vaccine.
Where Should You Get Your Flu Shot?
According to a 2016 study done by InCrowd, a survey company, 17% of people got their flu shots at the grocery store or pharmacy, 55% got them in a medical facility and 28% of the population don’t get a flu shot. Because the CDC wants everyone to get a flu shot, the prevalence of locations where you can get one has grown exponentially in the past five years.
Some insurance plans pay for immunizations—which are listed as preventive care — no matter where they are received, while others stipulate the shots must be given in a medical setting. The reason some insurance companies insist you get your flu shot at a medical facility is a fear of immediate negative reactions to the shot. However, a study in 2011 noted that the rate of “immediate reactions,” in which a person suffers a negative medical reaction just after a shot is administered — including potentially fatal anaphylactic shock — is exceedingly low, happening only once in every 1.5 million vaccinations.
However, one of the tradeoffs of getting a flu shot outside of the doctor’s office is that it can disrupt the doctor-patient relationship, causing doctors to miss the chance to intervene on other medical matters while giving simple immunizations.
A survey of 108 doctors was also done at that time and they were asked what the disadvantages were to receiving flu shots at these outside sources. The fact that there was no flu shot recorded in a patient’s chart was reported by 30% of doctors surveyed. One doctor reported that it takes extra time to track down the shot record and update it in the patient’s chart. About 20% of doctors surveyed felt that it disrupted the care of the patients. One doctor thinks it may keep the patient from discussing other preventative health issues with the doctor. Just over 15% felt that there in fact are no drawbacks.