Most years, getting a flu shot tends to creep down to the bottom of most people’s To-Do list. Yes, it’s important, but it takes time figuring out when you can exactly take a trip down to your local pharmacy or MD’s office to get it done. Plus, let’s face it: Getting pricked with a needle isn’t exactly fun.
But this year isn’t like any other year. (Understatement of the century.) Given the continued severity of the COVID-19 pandemic (and concerns of a second wave in the fall coinciding with regular flu season), flu shots are getting the attention they deserve with many not only wanting one, but wondering if they can get it sooner rather than later.
“This year, like every year, it is vital to get the influenza vaccine in order to protect the population from the flu and particularly to protect the populations who are susceptible to the severe complications of the flu,” says Edith Mirzaian, PharmD, the associate professor of clinical pharmacy at the University of Southern California. “It’s especially important to protect yourself from the flu this year so that we reduce the rate of emergency department visits and hospitalizations due to influenza. COVID-19 is still here and we need to act responsibly and do what we can to prevent the burden on hospitals and emergency departments that need to treat patients with COVID-19.”
Here, medical experts answer the biggest questions about this year’s flu shot, including the best time to get it and if it could lower your chances of getting COVID-19.
When should people get a flu shot?
Typically, the best time to get the flu shot is between late September and late October. However, Jake Deutsch, MD, an emergency medicine physician and founder of Cure Urgent Care, is all for people going ahead and getting their flu shot as soon as its available. “The earlier you get the flu shot, the more likely you’re going to have immunity. It can take four to six weeks for the body to build a full immune response to the flu vaccine, so that puts you in a better standing to prevent the flu,” he says. This also will ensure you get one before they run out.
However, Mirzaian says it may still be best to wait until September. “Because of the fact that the onset of the influenza season is a bit unpredictable and immunity to influenza may wane before the end of the influenza season if the vaccine is given too early—such as in July or August—the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends that people get their influenza vaccines by the end of October,” she says.
The one exception to this is for kids between the ages of 6 months and 8 years who are getting the flu shot for the first time. Mirzaian says since they require two doses spaced four weeks apart, it’s best to get them in for their first shot now so they will have time for their second one before the end of October.
Mirzaian says once you get a flu shot, you’re good to go until next spring. “If you get your flu shot in October, you’re typically protected until April,” she says.
Who should get a flu shot?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says everyone over 6 months old should get a flu shot (with some rare exceptions). However, there are some people who have an increased risk of complications from influenza who absolutely need a flu shot, per the CDC—including people aged 65 or older, children younger than 2 years old, pregnant people, and Native Americans.
Myths abound about the safety of getting a flu vaccine if you’re pregnant, but experts say it’s both safe and essential for protecting you and your baby. “In a pregnant woman, the immune system downgrades, and changes to lung function predispose them to getting the flu. But when mothers receive the flu shot, they pass some of that immunity to the baby via the placenta, thus helping to provide immunity to the baby for the first few months of life,” Kecia Gaither, MD, a double board-certified OB/GYN, previously told Well+Good.
How effective will this year’s flu shot be?
One reason people tend to skip out on the flu shot is because they don’t think it will “work.” But that perception comes from a misunderstanding about how the flu operates. “There are really two major strains, Flu A and Flu B,” Dr. Deutsch explains. “Every year, the vaccine is typically effective for both, but we aren’t clear on what that percentage of efficacy is.” That’s because it really depends on what specific strains of influenza circulate in a community; while experts who formulate the year’s shot can make their best possible estimates, what’s in the flu shot might not always align with the strains that take off during flu season. (Generally, the flu vaccine can reduce the risk of flu by 40 to 60 percent in a population, per the CDC.)
Regardless, Dr. Deutsch emphasizes it’s still important to get your shot. “There’s no question in my mind that you should be getting the vaccine as a preventative measure though especially amid COVID-19,” he says.
Does the flu shot reduce the risk of getting COVID-19?
No. SARS-CoV-2, aka the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is a different virus from influenza (whose various strains go by the acronyms H1N1, H3N2, and others). Thus the flu shot is not meant to protect you from contracting COVID-19.
The flu vaccine will play a different role in the fight against COVID-19, says CVS Pharmacy Manager Julia Tiberi. “While the flu vaccine does not help prevent COVID-19, there are many other important benefits, including reducing the risk of illness, hospitalization, and death due to the potentially severe complications that may occur when someone has the flu,” she says. This will hopefully free up hospital beds and resources in order to take care of people who have COVID-19—for which there currently is no vaccine or cure. Mirzaian adds that the flu vaccine will hopefully minimize the number of people who mistake flu symptoms for COVID-19, or vice-versa, as many symptoms are similar.
When will the flu shot be available?
Dr. Deutsch says most people should be able to get their flu shot already; if you don’t have access through your local pharmacy or doctor’s office yet, you should have access by the end of August or beginning of September.
If you have health insurance, your flu shot is 100 percent free—which is required by the Affordable Care Act. (Many Medicaid and Medicare plans also are required to cover the flu vaccine.) Without insurance, the cost is typically around $30, depending on where you live and where you get the shot. Per AARP, some federally-funded health centers offer flu vaccines at a sliding-scale cost to people without insurance; you can find one near you by typing your zip code into this map from the Department of Health and Human Services.
“This season, it is likely that the flu viruses and the virus that causes COVID-19 will both be circulating at the same time,” Tiberi says. “It’s more important than ever to get a flu vaccine in order to reduce risk from getting and spreading the flu virus and reduce the burden on our health care system as the pandemic continues to impact local communities across the country.”