Facts, Fiction, and Flu: Understanding Your Vaccine Options

With evolving news and recommendations about the COVID-19 vaccine still making headlines, the flu vaccine might not be top-of-mind for many people. 

The fact is, for those of us in the northern hemisphere, seasonal influenza is upon us, as it usually circulates between October and March, with the December through February period constituting peak flu season. 

The flu, of course, is far from new. But that doesn’t mean that most of us have clear, accurate information on the best ways to protect ourselves during flu season and year-round. Jan Carney, MD, MPH, the associate dean for public health and health policy and a professor of medicine at Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont, recently weighed in on flu readiness for a US News and World Report myth-busting article.

Flu Vaccine Timing for Maximum Results

A flu fact that many people don’t realize is that the flu vaccine does not deliver immediate protection. “It takes about 2 weeks for your body to make antibodies to protect you against infection with the influenza virus,” explains Dr. Carney. Because protection takes a couple weeks to kick in, it’s worth planning ahead to get your vaccine in September or October, before flu season takes hold. Didn’t make that deadline? Consider getting your shot as soon as possible, to get ahead of the incoming peak season.

Another common misconception about the flu vaccine is that it’s only for kids or the elderly. Not true, says Dr. Carney, who explains that “a flu shot each year is recommended for everyone 6 months and older.” While most people will recover from an influenza infection within a week, it’s not uncommon for people to experience flu complications such as ear and sinus infections or pneumonia. The flu can also worsen existing conditions like asthma, for example.

boy showing a blue bandaid after a flu vaccine

However tempted you may be to think complications don’t apply to you, the sobering fact is that more than 36,000 people die annually in the U.S. from the flu. Moreover, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized with flu complications each year, and they’re not just the very old and frail. While children under 5 and adults over 65 do carry increased risk of serious complications, age is not the sole determiner of your risk. “Chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes, heart and lung disease, or HIV/AIDS,” Dr. Carney says, increase your vulnerability to flu complications.

Flu Vaccine Effectiveness

Perhaps one of the most pervasive myths about the flu vaccine is that if you get vaccinated and still contract influenza, the vaccine didn’t work. Such narratives can dissuade people from getting the vaccine, as they adopt a “why bother?” attitude. “How well the vaccines work each year depends on two factors: the person being vaccinated (their age and medical conditions), and how well the current vaccine “matches” the flu viruses currently causing infections. When there is a good match, the risk of flu drops by 40% to 60%, according to research studies,” Dr. Carney explains.

“Flu vaccines are updated each year because viruses are always changing,” she continues. “Influenza viruses are tracked worldwide in 114 countries, called influenza surveillance, with samples tested in 6 World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centers. Each year, in February, for the northern hemisphere, scientific experts and the WHO recommend which viruses should be part of the upcoming year’s flu vaccine.”

While the vaccine does not prevent illness 100% of the time, it does have a marked impact on public health. “The CDC estimates that the flu vaccine prevented 7.52 million illnesses, 3.69 million healthcare visits, 105,000 hospitalizations and 6,300 deaths during the 2019-2020 flu season,” Dr. Carney says. Recent research also suggests that the vaccine can reduce illness severity if you were to get influenza while vaccinated.Finally, there is the matter of which vaccine type is best for you. It’s an important question, but not one that should deter you from getting the vaccine.  “A conversation with your primary health care professional can help you answer any questions and decide which flu vaccine is best for you,” Dr. Carney says. 

The CDC publishes a list of the flu vaccine types available each year; take a look, consult your doctor should you have any questions, and have a happy and healthy winter.

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