We might not be able to prevent COVID-19 just yet, but we do have an effective vaccine against another deadly illness: influenza. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone age six months and older should get the flu shot every year, with the rare exception of people who have severe, life-threatening allergies to the flu vaccine or any ingredient in the vaccine.
In the US, flu season occurs in the fall and winter. Although influenza viruses spread throughout the entire year, the CDC says flu activity typically peaks between December and February, but can persist until May.
Thanks to the coronavirus, infectious disease is at the forefront of most people’s minds right now. And as flu shots start becoming available, should we be putting it at the top of your to-do list right now?
The general consensus, according to the CDC and infectious diseases experts, is that you should wait it out until at least September or October to get your annual flu shot. The CDC specifically points out that "getting vaccinated in July or August is too early, especially for older people, because of the likelihood of reduced protection against flu infection later in the flu season," adding that September or October are "good times to get vaccinated." (Though, it should be noted that if you miss that fall deadline, you can—and should—still get the flu vaccination later in the season).
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“We want to have as many people get flu shots as possible, however it’s important to make sure that you get the flu shot when it’s going to be most effective,” infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Maryland, tells Health. He also recommends getting the flu shot in October, which may be "more optimal for protection."
That specific flu shot time frame allows both allows the body to trigger enough protection against the virus, and ensures that protection can last throughout the most active parts flu season, before it begins to wear off. "It takes around two weeks after vaccination for enough antibodies to form and to achieve full immunity," epidemiologist Supriya Narasimhan, MD, chief of the infectious disease department at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in California, tells Health. (FYI: The flu shot is most effective in the first three months after a vaccination, but people still have protection for at least six months after the shot.)
Timeliness aside, it's especially important to get a flu shot in general this year, due to COVID-19. "Even during non-COVID-19 years, during a bad flu season, hospitals run at capacity, and our ERs and ICUs are full,” Dr. Narasimhan says. “The healthcare systems can get very overwhelmed very quickly and we can run short on testing supplies which has already happened with COVID-19 earlier this year.”
While people with mild flu-like illness may have stayed at home in the past and just ridden it out, Dr. Narasimhan believes they’ll be more concerned this year. “The symptoms of flu and COVID-19 have a lot of overlap—people will want to get tested for COVID-19,” she says. “When they come to the ER or urgent care to get tested, they’re set up for more exposure to sick people.”
It’s important to do everything we can to ensure hospitals have the capacity to deal with COVID-19 this fall and winter, Dr. Adalja adds. “As flu and COVID-19 compete for the same hospital resources, personal protective equipment, and diagnostic reagents, it is important to try and minimize the impact of the flu,” he says. “Decreasing the burden of influenza is one way to make sure we have enough room for COVID-19 cases.”
Overall, the flu shot is essential this year, but if you've heard news that your local pharmacy is now offering flu shots and you're hoping to get one ASAP, you may want to wait it out a bit more—at least until September—to make sure benefit from all the protection a flu vaccine can offer, when you may need it most.
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