It’s important to do what you can to prevent illness during this pandemic – that includes getting the flu shot. Dr. Stephen Rinderknecht, chair of the UnityPoint Clinic immunization committee, answers eight frequently asked questions like – “should I get a flu shot?” explaining why getting the flu shot is even more important now, than in years past.
Why Should I Get a Flu Shot, Especially This Year?
We recommend the flu shot every year. But, with the unpredictability of the delta variant of COVID-19 circulating at the same time as the flu, Dr. Rinderknecht says the best measure is to decrease the possible impacts on our respiratory system, including preventing the flu. The flu vaccine not only reduces your risk of illness but can prevent hospitalizations and deaths.
Getting a flu shot also helps conserve health care resources during this pandemic. For example, if you aren’t in the hospital fighting the flu, there are more resources, like beds, for those who are hospitalized with other illnesses.
Will the Flu Shot Protect Me From COVID-19?
The flu vaccine will not help you avoid infection with COVID-19, because they are different viruses – one that we know a lot about (the flu) and one that is still very new (the virus that causes COVID-19).
“This year’s flu vaccine is updated to better protect against flu strains we expect to circulate this flu season. It will guard you against two different influenza A strains and two different influenza B strains. The nasal spray form of the flu vaccine will also be available in some clinics that choose to use it,” Dr. Rinderknecht says.
When is the Best Time to Get a Flu Shot?
“The flu vaccine takes several months to manufacture and usually becomes available in clinics by late August. We encourage the flu vaccine to be used as soon as it’s available. It’s ideal for everyone to be vaccinated by the end of October. However, if you don’t make that deadline you can still be vaccinated later in the season,” Dr. Rinderknecht says.
The CDC says the vaccine is estimated to protect you through the upcoming flu season.
“Flu activity usually peaks between December and February, though it can be active as late as April or May. This upcoming flu season will be very unpredictable due to reduce population immunity from a very low flu virus activity during the 2020-2021 season,” Dr. Rinderknecht says.
How Effective is the Flu Shot This Year?
“How well the flu vaccine works each season is determined by several factors, including a person’s age, underlying disease and circulating strains in the community. Efficacy can vary from about 25 to 75 percent, but 60 percent is about typical. Even when the flu shot doesn’t totally prevent the flu, you usually get a milder form of the virus if you contract the flu after having the flu shot,” Dr. Rinderknecht says.
If you’ve had the flu before, you are not immune to it. That’s why it’s best to get the flu shot every year.
How Does the Flu Shot Compare to the COVID-19 Vaccine?
“There are basically two general categories of flu vaccines in the United States: Inactivated Influenza Vaccines (IIV) and Live Attenuated Influenza Vaccine (LAIV). The IIV vaccines are produced by growing the flu virus in a variety of ways, including in eggs. Once grown, the virus is taken out and inactivated so it can’t cause the flu in the body. The LAIV comes in the form of a nasal spray. It’s unique in that it uses a weakened virus that doesn’t cause disease. When sprayed into the nose, it reproduces in the upper airway and generates an immune response,” Dr. Rinderknecht says.
Neither of the methods (mRNA or viral vector) used to make COVID-19 vaccines are currently used to make flu vaccines.
“The technology involved in the manufacturing of the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines comes with several advantages. The components are readily available, it’s faster and it’s less expensive. In addition, these vaccines have proven themselves with two very safe and very effective COVID-19 vaccines. For these reasons, I believe we will see the mRNA technology used for many other vaccines in the future,” Dr. Rinderknecht says.
Who Should Get the Flu Shot?
Dr. Rinderknecht says generally anyone, six months and older, should get the immunization. It is especially important for vulnerable populations, like older adults and those with pre-existing medical conditions like cancer or diabetes, to get the vaccine in hopes of helping protect their bodies against the burden of respiratory illness. What about pregnant individuals? It is both safe and recommended for pregnant women to get a flu shot to help prevent the flu and complications.
There are few rare exceptions identified by the CDC. They include people who are allergic to the flu vaccine or anything used to make it. If you have concerns, talk to your care team.
Should I Get the Flu Vaccine if I’m Sick?
Research shows very mild illness shouldn’t impact the flu vaccine. But, out of an abundance of caution, if you have any COVID-19 symptoms and you haven't been tested, it’s best to wait to get vaccinated in order to prevent the potential spread of the virus.
According to the CDC, COVID-19 symptoms include:
How Do I Get My Flu Shot with UnityPoint Health?
If you have any health-related questions regarding the flu vaccine, it’s always best to start by talking with your primary care provider. Your clinic will be able to answer questions about how and when flu shots are being administered. You can also check out our flu page to get information on vaccines near you.