Now that it's officially fall, cold and flu season is upon us. That means there's something you should do before the busy holiday season starts: Get a flu shot. Going in for a quick flu vaccine is a crucial step for you and your loved ones to take in order to prevent catching an influenza virus and spreading it to others. Not sure when to get a flu shot—not to mention where to go, what to do, or who really needs one? Doctors weigh on what you need to know about this flu season and vaccine, especially given the unprecedented concurrence of the influenza and coronaviruses right now.
Yes, you should still get a flu shot for 2020
Given the simultaneous threat of COVID-19, many people have been anxious and confused about whether or not to get their regular, annual flu vaccine for the 2020–2021 flu season. However, Carmen Teague, MD, specialty medical director of internal medicine at Atrium Health, highly encourages everyone to "please get the flu shot."
"The flu shot is more important this year than ever before as flu season collides with the COVID-19 pandemic. We know that co-infection with flu and COVID-19 is possible and such a co-infection will be a nasty combination," Dr. Teague says. "Of course, social distancing and mask-wearing are incredibly important, but we have no vaccine protection against COVID-19 to date."
So while the flu shot does not protect against the coronavirus, getting one will at least help safeguard against one of these coinciding illnesses.
The best time to get a flu shot
People should preferably get their flu vaccine early in the fall—ideally before the end of October, according to Eric Chow, MD, of the Influenza Division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "It takes about two weeks after getting vaccinated for antibodies to develop in the body and provide protection against flu, which is why it's important to get vaccinated before influenza activity begins in your community," he says.
But later is better than never
Even though October has passed, don't panic: You haven't missed your window to get vaccinated. "It's not too late to get it—we recommend the flu shot all the way through flu season, which can last October through March," Dr. Teague says, adding that it can even last into April, depending on the flu activity in your region. "If there are still active flu cases in the community, the flu vaccine is still helpful. We can never predict exactly when flu infections will spike—often, [it's] after the holidays. It only takes a few weeks after receiving the vaccine to develop antibodies and immunity, so getting the flu shot late in the season is still recommended."
Where to get a flu shot
Here's the good news—you can get a flu shot just about anywhere. Flu shots are typically available at your primary care doctor's office, urgent-care clinics, county health departments, a local pharmacy (like CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid), or your college health center. Many employers and schools also offer it on a rolling basis (if they haven't provided it already, check in with your HR department for details). Some places will even offer the flu shot for free (with or without insurance), so make sure to check in with local clinics, libraries, and town halls to see if there's one available near you. You can also search for flu shot providers through VaccineFinder.org or the CDC vaccine finder service.
"Thankfully, the preparations and planning for the 2020–2021 flu season preceded COVID-19, so the [flu] vaccine was already in production and ready for distribution for this flu season," Dr. Teague says. "To date, we have had no shortages of flu vaccine and the vaccine is readily available at primary care and retail locations."
Who shouldn't get a flu shot?
Dr. Chow says you should speak to your health care provider if you have any concerns about getting a flu vaccine. "Different flu vaccines are approved for use in different age groups," he notes. "People should talk to their health care provider if they have concerns about getting a flu vaccine." For example, children younger than 6 months of age are too young to get a flu shot. People with severe, life-threatening allergies to the flu vaccine or any ingredient in the vaccine should also not get the shot. These allergies could include but are not limited to gelatin, antibiotics, or other ingredients.
If you're allergic to eggs, fear not, as you can get the flu vaccine too. However, if you do have an egg allergy, experts at the CDC recommend you get the vaccine in a medical setting, where a health care provider can monitor for any symptoms and severe allergic conditions.
And finally, Dr. Chow says anyone who's had Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS, a severe paralyzing illness), may not want to get the shot. "Some people with a history of GBS should not get this vaccine. Talk to your doctor about your GBS history."
What we know (so far) about the 2020 flu virus
"We do know that the flu is already present in the U.S., however, activity is still quite low," Dr. Teague says of the 2020 flu season. The CDC diligently tracks current flu activity and releases its weekly influenza surveillance report called FluView, as well as forecasting future flu trends via FluSight. Dr. Teague encourages everyone to refer to the CDC's reports for the most up-to-date info on flu activity in their area.
Smart steps to avoid catching the flu
The good news? Dr. Teague makes the point that the safety precautions we've been taking to contain the coronavirus may also be helpful in keeping flu cases at bay.
"I do think that COVID-19 precautions—including masks, improved hygiene, and social distancing—could have a positive impact on the flu season this year," Dr. Teague says. "Influenza and COVID-19 are both viruses spread by respiratory droplets, so any efforts we make to decrease the spread of such droplets should help decrease the spread of both viruses."
And Dr. Chow says that, in general, the CDC recommends that everyone take three basic actions to fight flu:
- Anyone 6 months or older should get a flu vaccine.
- Take everyday precautions to help prevent the spread of flu: Cover coughs and sneezes, wash your hands frequently, stay away from others if you or they are not feeling well.
- Take antiviral drugs to treat the flu, if prescribed by your doctor.
"We do know that every season, regardless of what influenza viruses are circulating, there are millions of illnesses and hundreds of thousands of influenza-associated hospitalizations," Dr. Chow says. "Influenza vaccines offer the best protection against three or four of the most common influenza viruses expected to be circulating."