CHARLOTTE – What is the flu shot, and why do I need it?
“The flu vaccine causes antibodies to develop in the body about two weeks after receiving the shot,” says Novant Health physician Dr. Ray Feaster. “These antibodies provide protection against infection from the viruses that are used to make the vaccine. It can reduce the risk of flu illness, the rates of hospitalizations from the flu, and even flu-related deaths.”
When should I get a flu shot?
The simple answer? Now!
“The ideal time to get the flu vaccine is before the flu virus starts circulating in your community, which typically occurs in the fall,” says Atrium Health Infectious Disease Physician Dr. Anupama Neelakanta. “You should get your flu shot by the end of October. It can take up to two weeks for your body to develop an immune response that can protect against flu illness.”
Phillip Thornton of Mint Hill Pharmacy suggests a slightly longer ideal window. “In North Carolina, flu season is typically the end of January through March,” says Thornton, who chose to delay offering the vaccine at Mint Hill Pharmacy until September 28. “The flu shot is only effective for three to six months. The older you are, the less time that is effective. If our flu season is in March, and you get the vaccine in July or August, theoretically, you may not have immunity in December. When the flu season comes around, that’s not going to be effective.”
Although there may be a “too early” for the flu shot, medical professionals agree that it’s never too late. The CDC’s official recommendation is that everyone be vaccinated by the end of October. “If you cannot get it during that time frame, get it whenever you can for sure,” says Neelakanta. “Especially given the COVID pandemic, it’s important that you get your flu vaccine this year.”
It’s important to note that children who are receiving the flu shot for the first time require two doses administered one month apart, and they are not considered immune until they have received both. If your child will be receiving his first flu shot this fall, Neelakanta recommends you contact your pediatrician as soon as possible.
Flu Shots & COVID
It’s important to get a flu shot every year, but the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic makes it even more critical to protect yourself and others from the flu.
“We haven’t had COVID-19 with the flu at the same time,” says Thornton. “The concern is that if you get one, it’s going to put you at risk of complications from the other. We know that if you get a virus, while your immune system is fighting that off, it leaves a window open where you’re more susceptible to getting another virus.”
In other words, we don’t know if people who have recovered from COVID will be more susceptible to the flu this season, or if those afflicted with the flu will be more likely to contract COVID in its wake. “As we know, with COVID, some people who get severe disease can have lung damage,” says Neelakanta. “The long-term effects of that are unknown.”
“It’s all based upon historical things,” says Thornton. “We know that if you get the flu, you’re at increased risk of getting other bacterial or viral infections. And if you do, then the complications are much worse. People usually don’t die of the flu; they die because they get pneumonia, or they get something else when they have the flu because their immune system is down so much.”
“I think the bigger concern is if you get them both at the same time,” says Thornton, drawing attention to another circumstance we know little about as of yet. Of course, there isn’t a vaccine for COVID yet. With two potentially serious viruses circulating at the same time, it’s even more important to protect yourself against the one we do have a vaccine for.
Where can I get a flu shot?
“If you have a primary care clinic, that is the ideal place to be vaccinated,” says Feaster. “Flu shots are available at Novant Health primary care and pediatric clinics. Call your clinic to see if it offers this service.”
If you don’t have a primary care physician or can’t get in to see yours, there are many other avenues for receiving your flu shot. Mint Hill Pharmacy (as well as many other local retail pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens) offer the flu shot on a walk-in basis. Insurance usually covers the full cost of the flu shot, and retail pharmacies like those mentioned typically offer the vaccine at a relatively low price for those who are uninsured. If you cannot afford a flu shot, Feaster recommends contacting the local health department for assistance.
It’s important to note that “walk-in” locations may not be equipped to vaccinate young children. Mint Hill Pharmacy, for example, vaccinates children 12 and older. Children ages 9 and older can be immunized at any CVS Pharmacy, and children as young as 18 months can receive a vaccination at CVS Minute Clinic locations. Your pediatrician can help you understand where, when, and how to best get your children vaccinated.
Is it safe to visit a doctor right now?
“What we’ve seen in the pandemic is many people are avoiding going out completely and not going for preventive measures for fear of getting COVID,” says Neelakanta. “It’s really important you do go and get this vaccine. All places are trying to give vaccines in a socially distanced manner: requiring you to wear a mask, screening before entry, maintaining 6’ distance. Most practices are following this guidance to deliver the vaccine in a safe and effective way.”
“Our clinics are safer than ever, with rigorous cleaning between patients, prevention of crowding in waiting rooms by having patients check in from their vehicles, limiting the number of persons who can accompany patients, universal masking, and many other measures that patients don’t see behind the scenes to keep them safe,” says Feaster. “We have seen significant morbidity and even mortality because patients are fearful of seeking needed medical attention. Routine health maintenance should remain a priority, as it is the key to staying well.”
Who should get the flu shot?
“The CDC recommends anybody over six months of age should get one,” says Thornton, “ But especially people that are older, people that are at risk for infections or complications from it. If you have cancer or heart disease if you have diabetes, certainly if you have a lung disease like asthma or congestive obstructive pulmonary disease, if you’re a smoker, have emphysema – those are the people that definitely need to get it.”
In fact, with very few exceptions, everyone should receive the flu vaccine. “If you’ve had some reactions to flu vaccines before, then definitely talk to your doctor or pharmacist about that,” encourages Thornton. “A lot of people say ‘I have an allergy to eggs, so I can’t get a flu vaccine,’ but we do have some flu vaccine that’s not made in eggs, it’s made in cell culture, so even if you have an allergy to eggs, you can still get the flu vaccine.”
Although some people are skeptical that the flu vaccine works or fear a host of purported side effects, Feaster assures that most of these concerns are based on myths. “Flu vaccines have been shown to prevent and reduce the severity of illness for people who get vaccinated, but still get sick,” she assures.
What else can I do to stay healthy this flu season?
The same healthy habits COVID-19 has forced to the forefront of our lives can help protect you from the flu and other viruses. Staying home when you are feeling sick, wearing a mask in public, avoiding large gatherings, following social distancing practices, and washing your hands frequently all help to curb the spread of viruses.
Healthy habits like these are important, but medical professionals are clear: they are not a substitute for immunization. “Flu shots are the best way to prevent the flu,” says Thornton. “We have a lot of natural products that help, but the best is by far the flu shot.”
Moreover, just like wearing a mask, getting a flu shot isn’t just about you. Although you may only experience mild symptoms, you might pass the virus to an elderly person or young child who experiences more severe complications. “It’s really important that we make sure everyone gets vaccinated to prevent that spread,” says Neelakanta. “The more people who get the vaccine, the better,” adds Feaster. “Getting vaccinated protects you, your family, your neighbors and the people around you.”