The flu affects anywhere from 5-20% of the population annually, resulting in thousands of hospitalizations and deaths. Your best bet to avoid influenza is getting the flu shot. "Obtaining the flu shot will provide protection during flu season, which may extend into April," says Dawn Nolt, MD, MPH, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Committee on Infectious Diseases. So when is the best time to get vaccinated? Check out our guidelines below.
The flu vaccine is admittedly not perfect, and the effectiveness fluctuates every year. That’s because the vaccine is developed months before flu season hits, and it may be formulated to protect against different viruses than the ones that circulate. Even so, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) claims the vaccine is expected to reduce the risk of flu by 40% to 60%. Dr. Nolt says it should protect against the predominant flu strain circulating in communities, but it also contains protection against other strains as well. In addition, "the antibodies generated by the vaccine may provide cross-protection against those strains not represented by the vaccine," she says.
Even with its shortcomings, having the vaccine is better than having no protection at all. "The CDC notes that 80 percent of cases of pediatric flu [historically] are children who weren't vaccinated," says Mark N. Simon, MD, Chief Medical Officer of OB Hospitalist Group. Plus, he adds, "people who get the flu after being immunized tend to have a milder case and recover quicker."
Both you and your children should get the flu shot, since influenza can lead to other complications. "About one-third of cases of pneumonia are caused by respiratory viruses, the most common of which is influenza," Dr. Simon says. Even after recovery, you risk passing the virus along to your children or others who are more susceptible to the flu's effects. Pregnant women, older people, and babies are especially at risk.
If you’re pregnant, it's safe to get the vaccine. "There is a wide body of evidence about the safety of flu vaccines, many of which are thimerosal-free, for women and their babies," Dr. Simon says. The shot lets women avoid complications from catching the flu, which could lead to preterm labor. Another benefit to getting the vaccine during pregnancy? "If a pregnant mother is immunized against flu, she passes protective antibodies to her unborn baby," Dr. Simon says. "This is particularly important because babies under the age of six months cannot receive the flu vaccine."
For those aged 65 and over, a high-dose flu vaccine can further eliminate your risk of catching the virus.
In America, flu season peaks during the fall and winter months. The CDC recommends getting vaccinated by the end of October, especially since the antibodies in the flu shot take two weeks to develop. But don’t worry if you’ve missed this suggested deadline – getting vaccinated later in the flu season will still raise your immunity and eliminate your risk of spreading influenza to your community.
If you have children between 6 months and 8 years, note that they will need two doses of the vaccine. The shots are usually given four weeks apart, so get them ASAP to ensure kids are protected before flu season hits.
If you suspect you or your child has the flu (symptoms include fever, sore throat, and body aches), stay home from work or school, get rest and proper hydration, and call your doctor. "Medications against the influenza virus called antiviral drugs [such as Tamiflu] are available by prescription from your primary physician, and can decrease severity and duration of the illness if taken within 48 hours of onset," Dr. Nolt says.
You don't need to rush to the ER unless it's a true crisis. "I advise patients to steer clear of the emergency room if they have mild to moderate symptoms," says Elizabeth Suing, a physician assistant at Spectrum Health in Michigan. An office visit or trip to urgent care may be more appropriate—or see if your insurance has telehealth benefits, which allow you to connect with a doctor virtually through your smartphone or computer while staying quarantined. "We have treated hundreds of flu patients via our telemedicine program; during these video visits, we have prescribed Tamiflu when necessary," Suing says.