Give yourself a fair shot this flu season
While the COVID-19 pandemic is understandably top of mind this year, it’s important to remember to take preventive measures against other illnesses. September usually heralds the start of flu season, which can last through January or even later, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Getting the flu shot is one of the best ways to help protect your health and the health of your community – which is especially important now during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the current climate might throw a wrench into flu prevention this year (Do I have the flu or COVID-19? Is it safe to go into an office for the flu shot?), with the right information you’ll be better prepared to weather the storm this flu season.
The flu shot: your ounce of prevention
Each year brings a new wave of the flu. Because flu strains mutate and protective antibodies can decline over time, it’s important to get vaccinated each year, even if you were vaccinated the year before. This important step in prevention is not only associated with reducing instances of the flu; it can reduce the risk of hospitalization for adults, children, and seniors. It can also reduce flu-related deaths in children.
How does the flu vaccine work? Because the shot introduces a very small dose of seasonal flu strains, your body will develop antibodies against the virus, typically two weeks after you receive the shot. Each year, researchers work to home in on which three or four strains of the flu will be the most prevalent in order to increase efficacy. Although not 100% effective, the flu shot is linked with reducing illness severity – which is important for those who are at special risk for flu-related complications.
Those at most risk for flu complications include:
- People 65 or older
- Pregnant women
- Children under age 5 (and especially younger than 2)
- People with compromised immune systems due to certain illnesses or conditions
Where can I get a flu shot?
The CDC recommends getting the shot early in the season, such as September or October. But even getting the shot as late as January can provide benefits. Note that earlier is not necessarily better, as getting the shot in July or August might mean a reduction in efficacy near the end of the season.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s usually best to opt for a virtual consultation with your primary care physician (PCP) prior to scheduling an in-person appointment. Benefits such as Teladoc offer virtual care by phone or video, helping you maintain physical distancing and protecting yourself and your community. Your PCP can direct you to a covered provider and tell you where it’s safest to get the flu shot, such as a doctor’s office, a health clinic, a pharmacy, or even your workplace. And for many health plans, including Blue Shield plans, you can get the shot at no additional cost.
Is it the flu? Or COVID-19?
As the 2020 flu season approaches, we will be facing two viruses: influenza and COVID-19. While the flu shot does not protect against COVID-19, it does reduce the risk of sickness from flu, keeping your immune system healthy and preserving healthcare resources needed for the ongoing pandemic.
Many symptoms overlap between the flu and COVID-19. These can include fever, cough, body aches, and fatigue. However, according to the CDC, COVID-19 is also distinguished by difficulty in breathing and a loss of taste or smell. This list is not comprehensive, so it is critical to reach out to your doctor if you feel sick. Your doctor can make an appropriate diagnosis and help you get the care you need.
The CDC guidelines to prevent the flu also mirror the ones to reduce COVID-19 risk. These include physical distancing, washing your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds, covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, staying home if you feel sick, avoiding touching your hands, nose, and face, and practicing other healthy habits, such as keeping your home clean.
Is the flu shot safe?
With rare exceptions, such as allergies to flu shot ingredients or certain medical conditions, the flu shot is usually very safe for everyone 6 months or older. Again, it’s always important to discuss your medical conditions and concerns with your doctor before getting the shot.
Some parents have concerns that vaccines can lead to certain medical conditions, such as autism. Researchers have debunked this prevailing myth in several studies. And evidence suggests that vaccine benefits far outweigh the risks. Again, talking to your doctor about any concerns you have for yourself and your children can help you make an informed decision that’s right for you.
There is also the chance that the flu shot will be ineffective against a specific flu strain. While researchers work to identify the more prevalent strains, they aren’t always accurate. And while we can’t control flu season, we can take precautions to help mitigate risk. The flu shot – along with the preventive measures listed above – are key ingredients in helping to protect you and the ones you love.
Don’t get caught without the shot! Use our Find a Doctor tool to choose a PCP who can advise you where to get the flu vaccine.
The flu and COVID-19
What you should know