As far back as mid-summer, you probably saw signs popping up in your local pharmacy, reminding you to get vaccinated for the flu. And indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone over the age of 6 months get vaccinated against the flu each year, with rare exceptions.
“The best way to prevent the flu is to get the flu shot,” VADM Jerome M. Adams, U.S. Surgeon General, tells Good Housekeeping. “You should get your flu shot every year, but this year it’s even more important. Less flu and fewer hospitalizations will help conserve precious healthcare resources as we continue to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Every year, the flu sends hundreds of thousands of people to the hospital (and according to a new study from the CDC, sudden and serious heart complications are common among those people hospitalized for flu). Reducing that number will help ease the strain on our healthcare system, which is already overburdened by the COVID pandemic. “We’re about to enter the first time in this country when the two viruses will be circulating at the same time,” says Ram Koppaka, MD, PhD, a Medical Officer with CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. “We’re going to see the interaction of the two viruses for the first time. How these two will interact in the body is an unknown, so the best thing is to use the current effective tool we have to avoid one of them — and that’s the flu vaccine.”
Dr. Koppaka continues: “The initial manifestation of these two viruses have a lot of similarities, so the more we can reduce the risk of one of them — meaning with the flu vaccine — the less confusion there will be if someone presents with symptoms at the hospital. Knowing that a person who comes to the hospital with symptoms has had the flu vaccine will assist clinicians in their thought processes as they diagnose the person.”
Okay, you’re convinced — but you may be wondering, when’s the best time to get the flu shot? Is there an advantage to getting it sooner rather than later? (In other words: Should you have gotten one already, back in July or August when you first saw the signs at the pharmacy?). Or is it better to wait until later in the season? Here’s the info you need, based on science.
When is the best time to get a flu shot in 2020?
Each year, smart medical minds work to figure out which three or four strains of the flu are likely to be most prevalent in the upcoming season, and the vaccine is developed to target those strains. And then that season’s new vaccine is offered to patients. Once you’re vaccinated, it takes about two weeks for antibodies to develop in your body and provide immune protection, according to the CDC.
The best plan is to get the vaccine in advance of when the virus is most likely to hit your area. “We usually see a rise in cases in November and December,” says Dr. Koppaka. “We recommend a September-October time frame for getting the vaccine so that you build up an immune response before it starts circulating in your community.” Immunity rises gradually, he points out; when you get vaccinated during that September-October time frame, “it builds up by the time there’s a risk of being exposed.”
What if you miss that window of time to get the flu shot?
If you miss that ideal window of getting vaccinated before the end of October, as the CDC recommends, "you should still get vaccinated,” says Dr. Koppaka. “The flu season extends into April and May – even if it’s January or February, get it done. It’s not too late.”
And no, it isn’t ideal to get it earlier than fall, according to the CDC. “We’ve heard some questions about whether people should get vaccinated in July or August,” says Dr. Koppaka, “but we steer them toward September-October so the immune response lasts thru the full flu season.” According to the CDC website, getting the shot too early is “likely to be associated with reduced protection against flu infection later in the flu season, particularly among older adults.”
Kids are a special case: The CDC recommends that children ages 6 months thru 8 years who need two doses should get their first dose as soon as possible after the vaccine becomes available, so that they can get their second dose by the end of October (the two doses should be given at least four weeks apart). So even if they get their first shot in early to mid-September, they should be able to get their second one before Halloween.
The U.S. Surgeon General has a final message for Good Housekeeping readers: “While you’re making a plan to get your flu shot, be sure to talk to your health provider to see if you or your kids missed any scheduled vaccinations during the pandemic,” says Dr. Adams. “If the answer is yes, now is the time to get caught up!”
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