The arrival of the flu season always raises questions. You may be wondering: Do I really need a flu shot? When should I get it? Will it make me sick?
Keep COVID-19 in mind and you may have even more things to think about. Is it safe to get a flu shot and a COVID-19 vaccine or booster at the same time? The flu cases during the pandemic were so low, is the flu really worth worrying about, on top of everything else?
To clear up some of the confusion, it may help to hear from a doctor speaking directly. Purvi S. Parikh, MD, an allergy and immunology specialist at NYU Langone Health in New York City, shares her insights.
Everyday Health: Why Get a Flu Shot?
Purvi Parikh, MD: It is very important to get a flu shot because the flu virus causes many deaths, many hospitalizations and many long-term complications every year, especially in the elderly or people with reduced resistance or respiratory lung disease.
But even if you’re young and healthy, even if you catch a milder flu, you run the risk of passing it on to one of your loved ones, who could then have a more serious complication.
Children are also at risk, especially because their immune systems are still developing. And we see pediatric deaths from the flu every year.
EH: Who should get a flu shot and who shouldn’t?
PP: Anyone 6 months or older should get a flu shot. Whether or not you have a serious chronic condition that puts you at higher risk for serious complications from the flu, it’s a good idea to protect yourself and others. If you get the flu, you run the risk of passing it on to someone much more vulnerable than you.
Those who should not get a flu shot are those who have previously had an allergic reaction to the flu vaccine or may be allergic to any of the components of the flu vaccine. Or if you’ve had a rare neurological complication from the flu vaccine called Guillain-Barré.
But it is always best to discuss with your doctor whether it is a good idea for you to get the flu vaccine or not.
eh: Some people are afraid of getting sick from a flu shot.
PP: a flu shot can not make you sick because the flu vaccine contains an inactive version of the flu virus that your immune system can recognize and boost your immediate immune response without actually getting infected by the virus.
You may get some expected side effects from the flu vaccine, which we see with other vaccinations, such as feeling empty. Or you may have a headache or injection site pain for a few days. However, it is much better than getting the actual virus itself.
eh: What is the best month to get a flu shot? And is it ever too early or too late?
PP: In general, flu season is worst during the fall and winter, so most people get their flu shot at that time sometime between September, October, and November. However, it is never too early or never too late to protect yourself from the flu. The flu virus is here year round, so even if you get it a few months early, or even if you get it in the summer months, it’s still vital that you protect yourself.
eh: You can still get the flu even if you get a flu shot. So why bother?
PP: The goal of a flu vaccine isn’t necessarily to prevent you from getting sick, but to make sure that if you do become infected with the flu, you either don’t get a more severe version of the flu virus or you get a shorter and milder course.
And it’s to prevent the more serious complications of the flu, such as hospitalizations, death, secondary pneumonia. And again, by getting everyone the flu shot, we can protect even those vulnerable members of our community and those in our family who may be older or have conditions that put them at higher risk for complications from the flu.
eh: What should people over 65 know about the flu shot?
PP: People age 65 and older may not have as strong an immune response as those who are younger. Also, their immune responses sometimes wear off a little earlier than in people younger than 65 years. For that reason, we also have a powerful flu vaccine available every year.
And so those individuals should discuss with their doctor whether the potent vaccine is appropriate.