The 2017-2018 flu season is dangerously bad. Here’s what you need to know—and what you can still do to prevent getting sick.

By Marisa Cohen
January 17, 2018
JGI/Tom Grill/Getty Images

This past weekend, there was a flurry of activity on Facebook, as parents who had not yet gotten flu shots for their kids frantically posted queries about where they could find a nearby doctor who still had the vaccines in stock.

I was one of those parents. After hearing a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report that 20 children have died of complications from the flu this year, and that the illness has spread rapidly across the entire continental U.S, I suddenly realized, “Yikes! I never brought my kids in for their shots!” Sure, it was on my list of things to do in the fall—but then somehow between SAT prep, dance rehearsals, and taking care of my elderly parents, somehow that task fell by the wayside.

But is it already too late to get a flu shot? I had to find out. 

"It's not uncommon with parents that time just passes, and even if you religiously get the shot early every year, you might forget this year," says Flor M. Munoz, MD, associate professor of pediatric infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine, and co-author of the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations on flu prevention. "Though the best time to get the vaccine is before the flu season starts, you should definitely still get it for your kids now."

There's still a long way until spring, and plenty of opportunities for you or your kids to catch the bug. In a press conference earlier this week, Dr. Dan Jernigan, the CDC’s director of the influenza division, said, “If you look at seasons like this one that we’re having, there’s at least 11 to 13 more weeks of influenza to go.” Adds CDC spokesperson Ian Branam: “Now is still a good time to get vaccinated. As long as flu viruses are circulating, vaccination should continue throughout the flu season, even in January or later."

One important thing to consider: If your child is between 6 months and 8 years old and has never had a flu vaccine before, then he or she will need to get two doses, about three to four weeks apart. "Even though the child won't get full protection until after the second dose, there is still some protection after the first dose," Dr. Munoz explains. And look at it this way: By doubling up this year, your child will only need one dose next year.

Dr. Munoz also wants to address the question I've heard from many parents: "If the flu vaccine only protects from a small percent of influenza strains, is it even worth getting it?" According to Dr. Jernigan, this year's vaccine is estimated to protect against around 39 percent of strains. And Dr. Munoz points out that vaccinated children are 74% less likely to need hospitalization for complications due to flu, versus children who didn’t get the flu shot. She adds that one of the best ways to protect children from getting the flu is to make sure they don't catch it from the people around them—parents, grandparents, baby-sitters. So if you haven't gotten your shot yet, get on it!

Meanwhile, says Branam, “It’s important to practice everyday protection: washing hands frequently, staying home if you feel sick, and bringing your child to the doctor as soon as she’s feeling sick—because the sooner you start antiviral medications, the more effective they are.”