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Flu shot: Your best bet for avoiding influenza

Getting a flu shot often protects you from coming down with the flu. And although the flu shot doesn't always provide total protection, it's worth getting.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

This year's annual flu shot will offer protection against three or four of the influenza viruses expected to be in circulation this flu season. A high-dose flu vaccine as well as an additional vaccine also will be available for adults age 65 and older.

Influenza is a respiratory infection that can cause serious complications, particularly in young children, older adults and people with certain medical conditions. Getting an influenza vaccine — though not 100% effective — is the best way to prevent the misery of the flu and its complications. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends annual flu vaccination for everyone age 6 months or older.

Here are the answers to common questions about flu shots:

Why do I need to get vaccinated every year?

Because flu viruses evolve so quickly, last year's vaccine may not protect you from this year's viruses. New flu vaccines are released every year to keep up with rapidly adapting flu viruses.

When you get vaccinated, your immune system produces antibodies to protect you from the viruses included in the vaccine. But antibody levels may decline over time — another reason to get a flu shot every year.

Who should get the flu vaccine?

The CDC recommends annual influenza vaccinations for everyone age 6 months or older. Vaccination is especially important for people at high risk of influenza complications, including:

  • Pregnant women
  • Older adults
  • Young children

Children between 6 months and 8 years may need two doses of the flu vaccine, given at least four weeks apart, the first time they are given a flu vaccine. After that, they can receive single annual doses of the flu vaccine. A 2017 study showed that the vaccine significantly reduces a child's risk of dying of the flu. Check with your child's doctor.

Chronic medical conditions also can increase your risk of influenza complications. Examples include:

  • Asthma
  • Cancer or cancer treatment
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Diabetes
  • HIV/AIDS
  • Kidney or liver disease
  • Obesity

Anyone with a chronic medical condition should get the flu vaccine.

Who shouldn't get a flu shot?

Check with your doctor before receiving a flu vaccine if:

  • You're allergic to eggs. Most types of flu vaccines contain a small amount of egg protein. If you have a mild egg allergy — you only get hives from eating eggs, for example — you can receive the flu shot without any additional precautions. If you have a severe egg allergy, you may need to be vaccinated in a medical setting and be supervised by a doctor who is able to recognize and manage severe allergic reactions.
  • You had a severe reaction to a previous flu vaccine. The flu vaccine isn't recommended for anyone who had a severe reaction to a previous flu vaccine. Check with your doctor first, though. Some reactions might not be related to the vaccine.

Can the vaccine give me the flu or other respiratory diseases?

No. The flu vaccine can't give you the flu. It also does not increase your risk of COVID-19. But you might develop flu-like symptoms — despite getting a flu vaccine — for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Reaction to the vaccine. Some people experience muscle aches and a fever for a day or two after receiving a flu vaccine. This may be a side effect of your body's production of protective antibodies.
  • The two-week window. It takes about two weeks for the flu shot to take full effect. If you're exposed to the influenza virus shortly before or during that time period, you might catch the flu.
  • Mismatched flu viruses. In some years, the influenza viruses used for the vaccine don't match the viruses circulating during the flu season. If this occurs, your flu shot will be less effective, but may still offer some protection.
  • Other illnesses. Many other illnesses, such as the common cold, also produce flu-like symptoms. So you may think you have the flu when you actually don't.

What kind of protection does the flu vaccine offer?

How well the flu vaccine works to protect you from the flu can vary. The flu vaccine is generally more effective among people under 65 years old. Some older people and people with certain medical conditions may develop less immunity after receiving a flu shot.

Reviews of past studies have found that the flu vaccine is about 50% to 60% effective for healthy adults who are between 18 and 64 years old. The vaccine may sometimes be less effective.

Even when the vaccine doesn't completely prevent the flu, it may lessen the severity of your illness, and reduce the risk of serious complications and serious illness requiring hospitalization.

The flu vaccine does not protect you from getting COVID-19. However, it's especially important to get the flu vaccine this season because the flu and coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) cause similar symptoms. Flu vaccination could reduce symptoms that might be confused with those caused by COVID-19. Preventing the flu and reducing the severity of flu illness and hospitalizations could also lessen the number of people needing to stay in the hospital.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, both COVID-19 and the flu may be spreading at the same time. Your local health department and the CDC may suggest additional precautions to reduce your risk of COVID-19 or the flu, such as practicing social distancing and keeping 6 feet (2 meters) away from anyone outside your household. You also may need to wear a cloth face mask when in public, especially when it's hard to maintain distance.

Getting your flu vaccine can reduce your risk of the flu and its complications, and following these precautions can help protect you from the flu or other respiratory illnesses.

Call today to schedule your flu vaccine. 303-683-3377.

Heather Tribble FNP-BC