Flu season is here! Chances are, you’ve seen flu shots advertised by your primary care physician or local pharmacies. Although flu activity most often peaks between December and February, the number of cases typically begins to increase in October and doesn’t taper off until April. Given the long duration, it can be tricky to know when to get your flu vaccine each year.
In today’s blog post, let’s dig into what you need to know about the flu and flu shots.
To begin, the flu is the common term used to describe the infection caused by the influenza virus. A contagious respiratory illness, it can be mild (similar to the common cold) or severe, affecting the throat and lungs. If you have the flu, you often experience a fever, cough, sore throat, body pain, headache, and/or fatigue.
The influenza virus is primarily spread by tiny droplets in the air when infected people cough, sneeze, or talk. Although anyone can wind up with the flu, certain patient groups are at higher risk for flu complications, including pneumonia, dehydration, ear or sinus infections, and even death. These individuals include:
- Children under the age of 5
- People over the age of 50
- People with chronic medical conditions, like diabetes, asthma, or heart disease
- People with weakened immune systems
- Pregnant women and women up to two weeks post-pregnancy
- People with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or higher
- Healthcare workers
Like all viruses, influenza viruses constantly change and mutate — making them difficult to control!
The best preventative action against the flu is the flu shot. Each fall, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) releases a vaccine that specifically matches the seasonal flu viruses in circulation — which means it’s important to get a flu shot every single year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends vaccination for anyone six months and older and especially for patients with higher risk of complications. Although you may still get the flu after being vaccinated, you’re less likely to spread the illness or experience severe side effects.
Protection from the vaccine lasts around six to eight months, beginning two weeks after you receive it. That means, you’ll be protected for the duration of flu season each year. Research suggests that maximum immunity is achieved shortly after receiving the vaccine and decreases with each passing week.
Flu vaccines are available beginning in September, and the CDC recommends that everyone receive it by the end of October. However, flu shots are typically available for patients even in the later months of flu season (March and April).
Ultimately, the benefits of a flu vaccine outweigh any possible risk.
While the flu shot may cause an adverse reaction, it’s very unlikely. The vaccine is safe for much of the general population. It’s important to note that the flu shot does not give people the flu, as the vaccine consists of inactivated strains of the virus. Even so, possible side effects include flu-like symptoms, such as:
- Soreness at the injection site
- General aches and pains
- Low-grade fever
If you develop any of these symptoms, they are typically mild and only last a few days.