For the past two years, the flu has essentially been MIA, with cases plummeting along with social distancing, mask wearing, and other measures people have had to take to slow the spread of COVID.
But this year, the flu virus, as rusty and dusty as it may be, looks likely to return with a vengeance, and that means it’s more important than ever to get a flu shot, experts say.
Typically characterized by fever, muscle aches, headaches, and fatigue, the flu can become severe or life-threatening, especially for infants and people who are immunocompromised, pregnant and older. It can cause complications such as pneumonia and inflammation of the heart, brain, or muscle tissues. The virus can also aggravate chronic medical conditions like asthma and heart disease.
However, that number was reduced to an estimate 5,000 to 14,000 deaths in 2021-2022, which was lower than any of the 10 flu seasons before the pandemic. The year before, influenza activity was so low that the CDC couldn’t even generate load estimateswhich he does every year.
With cases expected to spike this season, a flu shot can help keep risks at bay. There is at least two main reasons Why You Should Get One Every Year: Your immunity to vaccination and infection declines over time, and flu viruses are constantly changing, meaning any protection you’ve gained from previous seasons could mean zero this year.
Another reason it may be very important to get a flu shot this year is that your protection against the virus may not be, relatively speaking, the best after two years of little or no exposure.
“In other words, vaccination makes more people resistant to infection the following year because they have that vaccine-induced immunity that was then possibly triggered by an infection,” said Andrew Pekosz, a virologist at Johns Hopkins. “But without [getting infected] for several years, we risk more people being susceptible to the flu than normal, and that’s another reason why we would worry about a big flu season if the flu comes back.”
Here’s everything you need to know about flu shots this flu season.
Why you should get a flu shot this year
The United States watches the southern hemisphere flu season, which occurs earlier than in the north, to get an idea of how the virus might behave. Unfortunately, Australia’s bout with influenza this year was particularly “worrisome,” Pekosz said.
The country not only had a high number of cases, but also experienced them earlier than usual.
“Both of those things are concerning to us as we now think about how to prepare for a possible flu season along with maybe some COVID surges,” Pekosz told BuzzFeed News, “especially as we all went back to work inside, schools are from full time, and we’re not doing a lot of our public health interventions anymore.”
And based on data from Australia so far, children in the US are more likely to be affected by the flu this season, Pekosz said: “Those are people who haven’t been as exposed to the flu, haven’t seen many flu seasons, and were perhaps even more susceptible than older parts of the population.”
COVID preventive measures, such as the use of masks, have also been significantly reduced compared to the last two years.
Vaccination generally offers protection during the flu season. You can still get sick, but a flu shot should reduce the chances that you’ll need emergency medical help. A 2021 study found that adults who received a flu shot had a 26% and 31% less risk of being admitted to the ICU and dying from the flu, respectively, compared with unvaccinated adults.
flu shots protect against four flu viruses that can circulate in a given season. So if the vaccine doesn’t adequately protect you from one of them, it may still protect you against the others.
However, like COVID vaccines, that protection can wane over time. A CDC analysis of influenza vaccine effectiveness from 2011 to 2015 found that protection dropped by about 6-11% per month, depending on the virus strain involved, and remained intact for approximately five to six months after vaccination. In general, the effectiveness of the vaccine declines a little faster for people 65 years of age and older.
What you should know about this year’s flu shot
First, everyone older than 6 months should get a flu shot, health officials say, with some specific recommendations or exceptions based on age, health status, and history of allergies.
And yes, you can get any of your COVID vaccines and/or boosters at the same time as your flu shot. Most health experts, including Pekosz, recommend it, primarily for its convenience. (Just don’t get vaccinated if you still have COVID; wait until you’ve recovered so you don’t infect anyone else in the process.)
The best time to get a flu shot is in October, but if you miss that window, you should still get vaccinated as soon as possible. Better late than never because flu seasons are becoming more unpredictable and typically shift to occur later in the year, the CDC says, with some seasons peaking as late as March.
And similar to the COVID vaccination, you should still get a flu shot, even if you’ve already had the flu, as the vaccine can protect you against other circulating flu viruses.
This year, the CDC recommends that people age 65 and older get a higher dose or flu vaccine with an adjuvant (an additional ingredient that enhances the immune response): Fluzone, Flublok, or Fluad, all of which can cause more temporary side effects, such as headaches, fatigue, muscle aches, and pain at the injection site for about one to three days . The new recommendation is based on evidence showing these injections are more effective in older adults than the standard ones, which are still recommended for all other age groups.
The guidance is particularly important because people over the age of 65 are more likely to experience serious outcomes from the flu. The CDC says that about 70-85% of flu-related deaths and 50-70% of hospitalizations have occurred in this age group.
Other people at risk of severe flu infection they are those with chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, or asthma, those who are pregnant, and children under the age of five, especially those under the age of two.
The good news so far is that this year’s flu shot appears to match currently circulating viruses, Pekosz said, but given the lack of flu cases in recent seasons, “we are very concerned that we haven’t detected enough strains to really get a good idea of how the virus has fared during the pandemic.”
Typically, about nine months elapse between the time scientists decide which virus they want next year’s flu vaccine to target and the time they vaccinate people, Pekosz said, meaning they’re making decisions. before the current flu season ends. “That’s not an ideal place to be,” he added, especially since circulating flu viruses can still mutate late in the season.
Ultimately, the delay is due to how the flu vaccine is made, which is a much longer process than COVID vaccines. Both Moderna and Pfizer, the companies behind coronavirus vaccines, are conduct clinical trials for their own influenza vaccines — a development that would be a “real game changer,” according to Pekosz, because “we could wait until the end of the flu season to make the decision on the right virus strains and be better prepared for the next flu season.”
In the meantime, wearing a face mask when in crowded indoor areas and staying home when sick will certainly help. And remember: there are four different and effective antiviral medication that can help you feel better and prevent serious illness; they work best if taken within 48 hours of symptoms starting, the CDC says.
“The more you can do to help protect yourself from serious illness, the better,” Pekosz said.