Flu Shots 101: What You Need to Know

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Doctor giving young girl flu shot

Each year public health officials and health care providers encourage people to get vaccinated against the flu. Anyone at risk for the flu should have a flu shot. For seasonal flu, this includes:

  • Children ages 6 months to 18 years
  • Adults over age 50
  • People living in a long-term care facility
  • People with weakened immune systems
  • People with frequent exposure to the general public (health care workers, emergency personnel, etc.)
  • Pregnant women
  • Anyone with a chronic medical condition
  • Caregivers or family members in close contact with high-risk individuals

The CDC now recommends flu vaccines for everyone over the age of 6 months old.

Who Should NOT Get a Flu Shot?

The flu vaccine is not right for everyone. You should not get a flu shot if you have:

  • Fever or moderate to severe illness at the time of vaccination
  • History of Guillain-Barre syndrome after previous flu vaccinations
  • Previous allergic reaction to a flu shot
  • Infants under 6 months old

If you have an egg allergy, talk to your healthcare provider about whether or not the flu shot is right for you. Egg allergies used to be a reason to avoid flu shots, but recent research has indicated that even people with severe egg allergies may be able to safely get the flu vaccine under proper supervision.

Do not get the vaccine at a walk-in clinic if you have an egg allergy; be sure to do so at your healthcare provider or allergist’s office. There are even some flu vaccines available now that are not grown in eggs at all, so the threat of a reaction for people with egg allergies is removed completely.

Seasonal flu shots generally become available in the fall, between September and November. If you are at high risk for the flu, you should get your vaccine as soon as they are available.

When You Should Get Vaccinated

You should get a flu shot as soon as it becomes available if you are at high risk for the flu, although December and even later is not too late to get one. The vaccine takes two weeks to become effective after it is given.

How Often Do I Need One?

The seasonal flu vaccine is different every year because the formula is changed based on what experts believe are the strains most likely to cause illness the following season. Therefore, it is important to get a flu shot every year.

Where to Find Flu Shots

There are many options when you are trying to figure out where to find a flu shot. The best place to receive your flu shot is at your doctor’s office if you have significant health issues. Your doctor should know your medical history and will know if there is any reason you should not have a flu vaccine. Flu shots may also be available at:

  • Pharmacies
  • Walk-in clinics
  • Grocery store clinics
  • Hospitals
  • Local health department
  • Check your local newspaper or the Flu Clinic Locator for flu shot clinics around your city.

When Is It Too Late to Get the Flu Vaccine?

Believe it or not, there really isn’t a time that is “too late” to get a flu vaccine. As long as the influenza virus is making people sick in your community, it’s worth getting vaccinated against it.

Some people think that if they get the flu, there’s no reason to get the flu vaccine. But even that isn’t accurate. There are usually multiple strains of the influenza virus circulating each year. Just because you get a strain of influenza A in December, doesn’t mean you can’t get a strain of influenza B later in the season.

The bottom line is, get your flu vaccine. If you haven’t gotten it yet and the flu is peaking in your area, go get vaccinated today. It won’t provide full protection for two weeks but it could still prevent you from getting sick.

Administration of the Vaccine

The flu vaccine is generally given as a shot in the upper arm or thigh (in children). It is also available as a nasal spray vaccine, but the inhaled form is not for use by children under 2 years old, adults over 49, people with weakened immune systems, or people with asthma.

In 2016, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommended that the nasal spray flu vaccine not be used during the 2016-2017 flu season, and reaffirmed this recommendation for the 2017-2018 flu season. This decision was based on evidence that the nasal spray vaccine was far less effective at preventing the flu than the injected vaccine in recent years.

The CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics accepted this recommendation. Although it is still an approved vaccine (FDA approval and CDC recommendations are separate and independent from each other), it is unlikely to be available in most places.

Since 2011, the Fluzone Intradermal Flu Vaccine is available and is administered using a much smaller needle than the traditional flu shot. There are many flu vaccine options available now. Talk to your health care provider to determine what is available in your area and which one is right for you. 

Side Effects

Most flu vaccine side effects are minor. Some of the more common side effects include:

  • Low-grade fever
  • Soreness at injection site
  • Decreased energy

If you experience:

  • Severe swelling
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Numbness

Contact your doctor immediately or go to the emergency room, these are signs of allergy or serious complications and could be fatal.

A Word From Tips For Healthy Living

Nearly everyone should get a seasonal flu vaccine. They are important to prevent the flu in yourself and others. Although they are not perfect and won’t always prevent the flu completely, those who are vaccinated have significantly milder symptoms and are less likely to be hospitalized or have serious complications as a result of the virus. If you aren’t sure about whether or not the flu vaccine is right for you or your family, talk to your health care provider. 

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