If you’ve ever had the flu, then you know it can be brutal. The symptoms can honestly make you feel like you’ve been hit by a truck. So flu prevention—like getting your flu shot—is seriously important.
But when you get your flu shot, the act is about more than those nasty, icky symptoms. It’s also about keeping those around you who might not be able to fight off the flu as well safe from a potentially life-threatening infection. And this 2021-2022 flu season especially, it’s vital to think about others, and not only yourself, when it comes to the flu shot.
While your mind might still be on COVID-19, it’s still important to get a flu vaccine, says Amesh Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
The flu can be especially dangerous for young and elderly folks. “People can be out of work for a week or two and they can get pneumonia or other serious illnesses, like ear infections and bronchitis,” says Greg Poland, MD, director of the Mayo Vaccine Research Group in Rochester, Minnesota. Flu vaccines have been shown to reduce the risk of flu illness, hospitalization and death, per the CDC. In fact, in the 2019 season, the flu vaccines were estimated to have prevented 7.52 million cases. And getting a vaccine this fall will not only reduce your flu risk, but also help save others by conserving potentially scarce health care resources.
So if you’re thinking about skipping out on the vaccine this year—think again. This season, know *exactly* when to get your vaccine, and how COVID-19 may effect you ability to get the flu shot.
When is the best time to get the flu shot?
The flu shot is available a lot sooner than you might think. Sometimes, you can get the vaccine starting at the very end of August, but more often it drops in pharmacies and doctors’ offices in mid-September or early October.
And that happens to be perfect timing, as October is ideal, according to Dr. Adalja. This timing decreases the risk of the vaccination wearing off before flu season really peaks. But he also said that if the only time you can get is before October, that’s okay too. It’s better to get the vaccination early than to not get it at all.
While it may seem alarmist to get your flu shot (or the nasal spray) ASAP, it really can save you from a dreadful few weeks or even a serious illness that sends you to the hospital. “I’ve seen far too many disasters in people who think they can time [the flu vaccine],” Dr. Poland says. “People either forget about getting the vaccine or procrastinate it. Then they start seeing their neighbors and coworkers get sick and decide it’s time. But at that point, it could already be too late.”
Will COVID-19 impact when and how I get my flu shot this year?
Yes and no. In terms of when you should get your flu shot, the advice remains the same. Similarly, if you’ve been sick with COVID-19 (particularly recently), wait until you’ve recovered from COVID-19 before getting a flu vaccine, advises the CDC. But you will still need the flu shot, since having COVID is not protective against influenza.
But in terms of how you’ll get the flu shot, the process will probably look similar to last year. Even if you have received a COVID-19 vaccine, medical centers and hospitals continue to require staff and patients to mask up. So, it you’re getting vaccinated in a doctor’s office, don’t forget to bring your mask just in case.
And you shouldn’t have to worry about offices or clinics running out of the vaccine either. The CDC reports that manufacturers have projected they’ll be supplying 188 to 200 million doses of flu vaccines. (Last season, there were 194 million doses distributed, btw!) But luckily, just like last year, there are no major delays being predicted when it comes to availability.
Video: What is a COVID-19 ‘breakthrough infection’ and should you be worried? (USA TODAY)
Despite a promising downturn of COVID-19 cases, thanks to the availability of effective vaccines, the virulence of the new Delta variant has taught us that COVID-19 isn’t over. And so, with once again an emerging spread of COVID, we may be stepping into another season where influenza and COVID-19 are spreading simultaneously. There are also additional worries that because the flu season in 2020-2021 was virtually non-existent—just a couple thousand cases were reported during the season thanks to COVID mitigation measures like mask wearing and social distancing—there’s suspicion that the upcoming season will be severe, reports NBC News. (There was an estimated 38 million cases of the flu in 2019-2020.)
This is yet another reason it’s more important than ever to get the flu vaccine.
How does the flu shot work exactly?
The influenza vaccine takes two weeks to incubate and build virus-fighting antibodies in your body, says Keri Peterson, MD, an internal medicine doctor at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City and medical advisor to Women’s Health. That means you’re not protected from the virus for a full 14 days after you get the shot. So your flu-infected neighbors could already have passed the flu on and your vaccine won’t do a thing to stop you from getting sick.
Still, that doesn’t mean you should skip the vaccine altogether if you feel like you’re getting your jab late in the season. It could still protect you, and will likely last up to six months.
“Some people think if they don’t get it by Thanksgiving, it’s too late,” says Dr. Poland. But that’s far from the truth. Dr. Peterson is still administering flu shots in her office well into March. And as long as your pharmacy or doctor’s supply hasn’t run out, you can still get a flu shot until May.
The CDC does note that getting a flu shot far in advance of the season, around July or August, is too early, especially for older folks. So you (and your parents! Spread the word) should ideally go in sometime in September or October, and then you can feel confident that you’ll be protected for more of the season.
Still, you shouldn’t think you’ve missed the window. “The majority of flu outbreaks in the U.S. happen between February and March,” Dr. Poland says, so getting a vaccine after the holidays isn’t pointless by any means.
Who should get the flu shot?
Everyone older than six months should be getting their flu shot—that includes pregnant women.”Especially pregnant women,” Dr. Poland says. “The influenza vaccine will help to protect their developing baby.”
Can I get the flu once I’ve gotten the vaccine?
Even if you do get the vaccine, it isn’t 100 percent effective, and there’s no guarantee it’ll keep you from getting the flu. That’s because the virus is “extraordinarily promiscuous,” according to Dr. Poland. It’s constantly mutating and changing, meaning that the vaccine you get could be protecting you from four different strains of the flu but if you run across a fifth strain, you could still get sick.
For example, “In 2000, we had exactly the right combination of flu strains in the vaccine,” Dr. Poland says. “Then, out of nowhere, in November, there was a new strain, and people had no protection.”
Still, some protection is better than none at all. With so many different types of influenza virus out there, it’s best to be protected against as many as possible.
When is flu season for 2021-2022?
The flu is unpredictable, but it typically thrives in the colder months. “When the thermometer drops, that’s when you can expect flu season to start,” Dr. Peterson says.
You can expect it to pick up around October, peak in December through February, and can last until May, Natasha Bhuyan, MD, an infectious disease specialist and family physician in Phoenix, Arizona, previously told WH.
So, *now* is the perfect time to put a reminder on your calendar to stop at your pharmacy and get the flu shot, for the sake of your own health and the health of everyone around you.