No, really, get a flu shot: Frequently asked questions about the flu vaccine
September 29, 2020
October typically marks the start of cold and flu season in the United States. This year, with the persistence of COVID-19, protecting ourselves and loved ones from flu will be more important than ever. Research shows that getting the flu vaccine can reduce influenza illnesses by 40% to 60%, and if we get the vaccine sooner rather than later, we can avoid a strain on our healthcare systems.
Here are a few common questions about the flu vaccine to help assuage any doubt that the flu shot is well worth the needle prick.
Why do I need a flu vaccine every year?
We have to get the vaccine every year because the flu virus is constantly changing. So, the flu strains in the vaccine are updated every year by the World Health Organization to ensure it includes inactive strains of the viruses that are predicted to circulate. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have a universal flu vaccine that would protect us from all influenza for all time. Scientists are working on one, but until then, we have to get a vaccine every year.
Does the flu shot wear off?
Yes, the flu shot wears off in about six months. The flu shot does not provide long-lasting protection, which is another reason we need to get one every year.
When should I get a flu shot?
We typically suggest getting the flu shot in the early fall, before the virus starts circulating in the community. It takes about two weeks to be fully protected after vaccination. We don’t know when or if influenza will peak this year, nor do we know what impact COVID-19 and all of our prevention methods like social distancing and mask wearing will have on influenza trends. Nevertheless, it’s important to get the vaccine to prevent the flu.
Why are we getting the flu shot earlier this year?
Experts are recommending getting the flu shot earlier this year because of access and capacity of health systems, as opposed to needing the protection from the flu earlier this year. We don’t know what the next few months are going to hold for the pandemic. And if we have a significant COVID-19 resurgence and our healthcare facilities get overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, then the general public’s access to appointments for the flu and other illnesses may be diminished. So, if there’s a way to get a flu shot now, go ahead and get your flu shot now.
Will the shot inject me with the actual flu virus?
No, the vaccine is made of an inactive version of the flu virus and, therefore, is not infectious. The nasal spray is made of a weakened form of the virus and cannot cause influenza, but may cause a mild runny nose for a day or two.
Is it true that the flu shot doesn’t always work?
Yes, it’s true that the flu vaccines won’t always work in everyone who gets it. A person’s immune history has a lot to do with their response to the vaccine. Also, the effectiveness of the vaccine varies each year. However, even when the shot isn’t as effective, it can help minimize how sick people become if they are infected.
Can people with egg allergies still get a flu shot?
Yes, it’s safe for people with egg allergies to get a flu vaccination, including vaccines made in eggs. However, those with a severe egg allergy are encouraged to get the vaccine in a medical setting with supervision by a healthcare provider who can manage an allergic reaction should one occur.
Are non-needle versions of the flu vaccine available?
The nasal flu vaccine was taken off the market for a few years because it was less effective, but it has been reformulated and is now back and available.
Who should not get a flu shot?
Children younger than 6-months-old should not get a flu shot, nor should people with severe, life-threatening allergies to flu vaccines. Those who are immunocompromised should talk with their healthcare provider before getting the vaccine, as well as those who are not feeling well. To protect individuals who cannot get the flu shot, it is vitally important that everyone around them get their flu shots.
Allison Bartlett, MD, MS
Allison Bartlett, MD, MS, specializes in the medical management of acute and chronic infectious diseases. She also is working to improve the safety and efficacy of antibiotic use in children.Learn more about Dr. Bartlett.