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Facts about the flu vaccine and what to expect this year

Wellness | October 12, 2021
Young man getting a flu shot
Everyone 6 months and older should get their annual flu vaccine, even if you’re fully vaccinated for COVID-19.

Around this time last year, you may remember talk in the media about a possible twin-demic—a COVID-19 and influenza (flu) surge at the same time. There was virtually no flu last winter, thanks to a record-setting 52% of American adults getting the flu vaccine and everyone wearing masks and practicing physical distancing.

What should we expect this flu season?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that, on average, about 8% of the U.S. population gets sick from flu each season. Typically, scientists look to the southern hemisphere—which has flu season during our summer—for data on what to expect. But, similar to the northern hemisphere last year, little flu has been circulating below the equator, thus making it trickier to develop this year’s vaccine. When vaccines are “well-matched” to the circulating flu virus, they can reduce the risk of illness by between 40% and 60%.

Also, different this year is a resumption of more “normal” activities. More Americans are traveling, dining out, and going to entertainment venues. In addition, many more workplaces and schools are open. Studies have shown that children shed more flu virus for a more extended period than adults and are thought to be the primary vector for bringing flu into the home.

An unseasonal surge of common respiratory illnesses earlier this year suggests that the flu season could be very active this year. The CDC issued a warning in July about the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). The virus, which generally peaks in winter, typically causes mild cold symptoms such as a sore throat, cough, and congestion. However, RSV can be dangerous for infants, and older adults, especially those who are immunocompromised or have chronic heart or lung disease.

The flu vaccine is safe and effective

Flu vaccines have a good safety record. Hundreds of millions of Americans have safely received flu vaccines over the past 50 years. It is estimated that over nine years, 40,000 plus deaths in the U.S. were averted by flu vaccination programs, and nearly 90% of those were in people 65 years and older.

The vaccine has also been shown to reduce flu-related illnesses and the risk of serious flu complications resulting in hospitalization or even death.

  • Flu vaccination has been associated with lower rates of some cardiac events in people with heart disease.
  • Vaccinating pregnant women helps protect them from flu illness and hospitalization and has been shown to help protect the baby from flu infection for several months after birth before the baby can be vaccinated.
  • A 2017 study showed that most pediatric flu-related deaths occurred in unvaccinated children.

Experts recommend that all people age 6 months and older aim to get a flu vaccine by the end of October (if you miss that date, it’s still better to get it late than not at all). Even if you’re fully vaccinated against COVID-19, you still need to get a flu vaccine. Despite similar transmission methods and symptoms, the COVID-19 vaccine will not protect you from the flu and vice versa.

As the vaccine declines over time, yearly vaccination is needed for the best protection. The most common side effects of the flu vaccine include soreness or redness at the injection site, headaches, fever, nausea, muscle aches, and fatigue. You cannot get the flu from a flu vaccine.

According to the CDC, the approved flu vaccines this year are quadrivalent, which means they offer protection against four strains of flu. Two of the strains are new compared to last year’s vaccine. Adults age 65 and older should get the high-dose flu vaccine or the adjuvanted flu vaccine; both have been shown to evoke a more robust immune response in older adults.

COVID-19 and the flu

The flu and COVID-19 will likely both circulate this fall and winter, and, yes, it’s possible to get infected with both at the same time. They have similar symptoms, such as fever, chills, or cough, so it’s essential to be tested if you are displaying symptoms.

Learn more by reading Are your symptoms flu or COVID-19?

You can get your flu shot and COVID-19 shot (first, second, or booster dose) simultaneously.

Limited data currently exist on giving COVID-19 vaccines with other vaccines. But experience with administering other vaccines together has shown how our bodies develop protection. Possible side effects are generally similar. If you get both shots at the same time, they will likely be given in different arms.

As with COVID-19, wearing masks in public places, physical distancing, and maintaining good hand hygiene--especially after coughing and sneezing--are essential to suppressing transmission of flu and COVID-19, even for those fully vaccinated against both. If you’re sick, stay home and avoid close contact with other people to prevent the spread.

No one knows what the upcoming flu season will hold. One thing is clear, though, anyone ages 6 months and older should get their annual flu vaccine.

The constant vigilance can be tiring, but those simple steps are why so many people avoided getting sick last year and could help you avoid both COVID-19 and the flu this year.

You can help stop the spread of the flu by getting your vaccine as soon as possible.

Schedule an appointment with your primary care provider or visit vaccines.gov to search by zip code for local pharmacies and drug stores offering the flu vaccine. Many retailers allow you to schedule an appointment on their website.

Finally, talk with your loved ones to make sure they understand the importance of getting their vaccine as well.

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