You can prevent the flu this season by taking one simple step: Get a flu vaccine. The CDC recommends everyone 6 months and older get vaccinated. This includes pregnant women. Unfortunately, some people think that getting a flu vaccine is too much trouble or costs too much. Or they are sure that a flu shot will make them sick. Or it will make them more likely to catch the flu.
The flu is also called seasonal influenza. It’s caused by one of several strains of the flu virus (type A or B) that infect the nose, throat, and lungs. The flu makes life miserable for a week or two for many people. It’s deadly for some. Flu season can start as early as October. It peaks anywhere from late December to early April.
This year you may have another important reason to get the flu shot: COVID-19. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, health experts strongly advise that you get the flu vaccine to protect you and others, and to reduce the strain on the healthcare system because of COVID-19. Those who get COVID-19 and the flu at the same time may be more likely to have severe complications or die from either illness. With COVID-19 circulating this year, it’s very important that you prevent getting the flu by getting vaccinated. Flu vaccines and COVID-19 vaccines can be given at the same time.
Your best defense against the flu is to get vaccinated. The vaccine is available in several forms.
- The flu vaccine is usually given by shot, most often into a muscle in the arm. This form of the vaccine has killed virus. It’s approved for most people older than 6 months of age. Children ages 6 months to 8 years who have never been vaccinated need 2 doses given 1 month apart. This is to build up protection. Get the first dose as soon as it’s available so that the second dose is given by the end of October. After the first flu season, your child will need only 1 dose for future flu seasons.
- A nasal spray is also an option for healthy, non-pregnant people 2 to 49 years old. It’s made of live but weakened flu virus.
- A needle-free device called a jet injector can give a 2-dose flu vaccine through the skin into the muscle. This may be an option for some people 18 to 64 years old.
A flu vaccine is especially important for people who are more likely to have problems if they get the flu. This includes
- Children younger than 5 years, and especially younger than 2 years
- People 65 years and older
- Those with long-term (chronic) health conditions or a weak immune system
- Anyone who lives in a nursing home or care facility
- Pregnant women and women who have had a baby in the last 2 weeks
- American Indians and Alaska Natives
- People with a body mass index of 40 or more
Even if you don’t fall into one of the above groups, you should still get the vaccine if you want to prevent the flu.
Talk with your healthcare provider first
Some people shouldn’t be vaccinated for the flu before talking with their healthcare provider, the CDC says. These are reasons to talk with your healthcare provider:
- You have a severe allergy to chicken eggs. This is more serious than itchy skin. An egg-free vaccine is available for people age 18 and older. You will be advised to get your flu shot in a medical setting where a healthcare provider can monitor you and give emergency care if needed for a severe reaction.
- You developed Guillain-Barré syndrome in the 6 weeks after getting a flu shot in the past.
- You currently have an illness with a fever. Wait until symptoms get better before getting the vaccine.
Children younger than 6 months of age should not be vaccinated against the flu. Flu vaccines haven’t been approved for that age group.
Other prevention steps
Flu viruses are spread by contact with droplets sneezed or coughed from an infected person. Breathing in the droplets is the most common way to get the flu. Touching objects on which droplets have landed also infects many people. You can spread the virus to others before you feel sick yourself. The CDC says you are contagious a day before symptoms start and up to 5 days afterward.
You can protect yourself against the flu by doing simple things like washing your hands before eating, not putting your hands near your face or in your mouth, and wearing a mask over your nose and mouth when around others. Washing hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and clean, running water works fine. If soap and water are not available, rub your hands with an alcohol-based hand cleaner that contains at least 60% alcohol. If someone in your family has the flu, you can help prevent it from spreading by wearing a mask and by cleaning surfaces with a solution of 1 tablespoon of bleach to 1 gallon of water.
Rooting out rumors
Don’t believe the rumor that a flu shot can give you even a mild case of the flu. It’s impossible. The vaccine does not contain a form of the flu virus that can give you the flu. The injected form of the vaccine is made from pieces of dead flu virus cells. After getting the vaccine, some people have mild flu-like symptoms as a side effect. This is not the same thing as having the flu.
When you get the flu vaccine, your body reacts and makes antibodies that give you immunity against the virus.
The main reason you should be re-vaccinated each year is that the flu virus is constantly changing into new strains. Each year the CDC tries to figure out which flu strains will have the biggest effect. The CDC works with vaccine makers to create the specific vaccine that will fight the predicted strains for that year.
If you are concerned about the cost of a flu vaccine, check with your local health department for places near you where free flu shots are given. Many insurers also cover flu vaccines at no cost to their members.
Online Medical Reviewer: Donna Freeborn PhD CNM FNP
Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN