With cold and flu season upon us, it is important to do what you can to prevent disease spread. Here's how to get the most out of your flu shot.

By Jessica Ball, M.S., R.D.
October 15, 2020
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Getting a yearly flu shot is a regular part of the fall for many people. Regardless if you routinely get vaccinated against the seasonal flu, this year may be more important than ever. With the coronavirus pandemic putting a strain on the health care system, anything you can do to stay healthy during cold and flu season is important. We dug into the Center for Disease Control's (CDC) recommendations about flu vaccines and talked to Amira Roess, Ph.D, M.P.H., infectious disease specialist at George Mason University, to learn about what you can do to make your flu shot as effective as it can be.

Benefits of the Getting a Flu Shot

Nobody likes getting sick, but there are several benefits to getting a flu shot beyond lowering your chance of catching a bug. Not getting the flu can save you the flu-related visits to the doctor's office, which can help make room for other people who need care. It can also reduce the transmission of the flu to high-risk individuals, like children, working-age adults and older adults. It also helps protect pregnant women during and after pregnancy. For even more incentive, studies have shown that getting vaccinated can reduce the severity of symptoms even if you do come down with the flu.

Who Should Get a Flu Shot

The CDC recommends that anyone over the age of 6 months should get a flu vaccine each year with some rare exceptions. Getting a flu shot is especially important if you are someone who is at high risk for complications associated with the flu, such as adults 65 and older and those with chronic illnesses like asthma, heart disease and diabetes. There are even different types of flu vaccines approved specifically for children as young as 6 months and adults over 65 years old. Ask your doctor if you are interested in learning more.

4 Things You Can Do to Make Your Flu Shot More Effective

Though you should get a flu shot regardless if you're able, these are four factors that can make it as effective as possible this year.

1. Time It Right

With summer quickly turning into fall, being prompt with your flu shot is important. ″Flu season has started in many parts of the country and it is a good idea to get the flu vaccine soon to protect yourself from the flu," advises Roess. The CDC recommends getting vaccinated by the end of October for it to be most effective.

But why is timing so important? ″It takes about two weeks from the time you receive your flu vaccine for your body to develop enough antibodies to protect you from the flu," elaborates Roess, "If you get it too late, then your body may not have enough time to develop enough antibodies to protect you."

2. Get Enough Sleep

Another way to ensure your immune system is in tip-top shape to make the most of the flu shot is to get plenty of shut-eye. Matt Walker, sleep scientist, author and professor at the University of California, Berkeley, stated in a TED Talk that those who are not getting adequate sleep are three times more likely to come down with a cold than those getting more than seven hours a night. He references a study in International Journal of Behavioral Medicine  where those who did not get more than five hours of sleep per night leading up to their flu shot made the vaccine only half as effective as those who had adequate sleep. He explains that our immune system repairs and builds itself while we sleep, so it is less equipped to utilize a vaccine when we aren't catching enough zzz's.

3. Move Your Body

Getting plenty of exercise is another way to make sure your body is healthy and ready for the flu vaccine. Staying physically fit and maintaining a healthy weight can help reduce your risk of chronic illness, which can make you more susceptible to complications of the flu. Additionally, a study in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society found that regular cardiovascular exercise improved people's responses to the flu vaccine over a 10-month trial.

4. Keep Your Gut Healthy

While no foods give you an immediate immunity ″boost," eating a healthy diet can help support a healthy immune system. Specific foods, particularly probiotics, can play an especially important role in keeping you healthy and able to fight off a bug. Be sure to work in lots of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, yogurt and fermented foods, like kimchi and sauerkraut, to keep your body nourished to make the most of the flu vaccine.

Bottom Line

The flu shot is really important for staying healthy through the changing seasons, especially this year. Timing of your vaccination and an overall healthy lifestyle can help you get the most effective prevention. "Getting an adequate amount of sleep (6-9 hours depending on your needs), staying physically active, staying hydrated and eating healthy foods will boost your overall health, including your immune system," said Roess. She also added that it is important to keep your hands clean and away from your face, especially when you are out in public. Frequent hand-washing and disinfecting high-touch surfaces can help prevent the spread of any disease, including the seasonal flu.

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