Here’s Who Needs a Flu Shot This Year, from Infectious Disease Specialists
Turns out, almost all of us need the flu vaccine in 2022. New research has found wise ways to enhance the effectiveness of your flu shot, plus flu shot mistakes to avoid.
Yes, you should get your flu shot
Many vaccines offer near-total protection against a disease, the flu shot isn’t one of them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates the annual flu shot reduces your risk of catching the flu by 40 to 60 percent. But if that seems like OK odds to gamble on, you might want to think again. The flu is a serious illness that can lead to pneumonia, hospitalizations, and death, says Margaret Khoury, MD, pediatric infectious disease specialist and regional lead of the Kaiser Permanente Southern California Flu Vaccination Program. And while the flu shot may not entirely prevent you from catching the virus, it greatly lowers the chance you’ll have a serious case.
The CDC spells it out like this: during the 2019-2020 flu season, flu shots prevented 7.5 million illnesses, 3.7 million medical visits, 105,000 hospitalizations, and 6,300 deaths. Notably, the flu shot offers critical protection for children—the CDC says 80 percent of kids who die from influenza are unvaccinated.
While the only real way to mess up your flu shot is to not get it at all, top experts tell The Healthy @Reader’s Digest the biggest mistakes people make when it comes to the flu vaccine.
You don’t get the vaccine because you think you’re too old—or young
Anyone older than six months should get the flu vaccine (unless you have a medical reason to avoid it, like an allergy or an immune disorder), Dr. Khoury says. This is especially important for children older than six months or anyone who cares for children, the elderly or their caregivers, pregnant women, people with asthma, heart disease, or diabetes; anyone over age 50; anyone who suffers from an autoimmune disease; anyone who lives in a nursing home or long-term care facility; those with obesity; and all healthcare workers, she says. That pretty much means all of us. However, if you’re over the age of 65, wait until at least late October to get your vaccine (between Halloween and Thanksgiving). This is because the vaccine’s protection wanes more quickly in older individuals. If they get the vaccine too soon, protection might not last the entire flu season. (But if the only choice for some seniors is to get the vaccine earlier or not at all, they should choose to get it earlier.)
You skip this year’s flu shot because you got one last year
Every year, influenza viruses mutate, which means the virus isn’t the same as the one you were vaccinated against last year. “People need to get the flu shot every year because flu viruses are constantly changing,
and it is not unusual for new flu viruses to appear each year,” says Caroline Sullivan, nurse practitioner, primary care provider, and assistant professor of nursing at Columbia University in New York City. Plus, Sullivan says, “Studies have shown that the body’s immunity to influenza either through natural infection or vaccination declines over time.”
Here’s how the flu vaccine works: ahead of each flu season, health experts around the world determine which flu strains pose the greatest threat. This research informs what goes into that year’s flu shot—exactly how effective it is depends on the accuracy of those predictions, with some years faring better than others. The final product is either a “trivalent” or “quadrivalent” flu shot, which means it protects against the three or four strains of influenza. So, even if experts only get one or two strains correct it’s still worthwhile to get the shot, Dr. Khoury explains.
And if you got the vaccine last year and still came down with the flu, it’s natural to question getting the flu shot again. But experts say that in these scenarios, the virus has mutated so the vaccine hasn’t kept up, or the illness you might have had was not true influenza, but another virus altogether.
You avoid the vaccine because you suspect you already got the flu
Are you sure it was the flu and not some other recent virus? Not only can you not be sure you’ve had it (unless you were tested), but there are multiple strains of influenza circulating every year—so getting one strain doesn’t protect you from the others, Dr. Khoury says.
As a bonus, even if you are sick, the flu shot can lessen the severity of your illness and protects you from other viruses through cross-protection antibodies, she says. These are viruses that are similar to the strains of flu in the flu vaccine, which your body learns to fight off.
Nourishment is key to recovery. Here’s what to eat if you have the flu.
You think the flu vaccine will actually give you the flu
This is the most common misconception people have about the flu shot—but science doesn’t back it up. The flu shot is made in such a way that it either contains no flu virus at all, or an inactivated or noninfectious virus, says Dr. Khoury. So while the flu vaccine may cause a low-grade fever and muscle aches in some people, these symptoms are usually temporary and are not actually an influenza infection.
You should also make sure you know these 10 myths about vaccinations you can safely ignore.
You make the flu vaccine hurt even more than it should by tensing up
Fear of needles is a very common reason people avoid the flu shot, and there are ways to help you deal with this, says Amy Baxter, MD, founder and CEO of MMJ Labs. “I do the scientific research on why, but the important thing is once someone is afraid, they tend to keep that fear for life,” she says.
Fortunately, you can have some control over how painful the vaccination experience is for you. “Tensing a muscle makes it hurt more, so try to relax the arm and focus on breathing,” says Baxter. “There are many strategies to reduce needle fear, but it usually takes three good experiences to help someone overcome it.”
Learn how one woman overcame her fear of needles for good
You don’t exercise the day of your flu shot
A 2022 study published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal, Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, found that light to moderate exercise—like walking or jogging—after you get your flu shot helps your body churn out more flu-fighting antibodies. (The study also shows that this is true for the COVID-19 vaccine—and that exercise doesn’t increase the vaccine’s side effects.)
What’s more, the enhanced immune response from just that one workout lasts for weeks beyond your vaccination.
You wait too long to get the vaccine
A typical flu season in North America starts as early as October and continues into May—and the flu shot works best early in the season, Dr. Khoury says. The sooner a person is vaccinated, the more antibodies and immunity they can develop before the height of flu season, which is January and February, she explains.
And since it takes about two weeks to build up immunity after you receive the vaccine, the CDC recommends getting the flu shot as soon as it is available (which is why most doctor’s offices and pharmacies start offering it as early as September).
But if you find yourself unvaccinated in late January or February, it’s still recommended to get the flu vaccine.
Here are 19 other ways to keep the flu at bay this season
You don’t get the flu vaccine because you’re pregnant or breastfeeding
This is a hot topic among pregnant and breastfeeding women, as well as those trying to conceive, but the verdict is in: you should absolutely get vaccinated. “Pregnant women should definitely get a flu vaccine, as they’re one of the most susceptible populations and can become seriously ill and even die from the flu,” says Laura Haynes, PhD, a professor in the department of immunology at the University of Connecticut.
Plus, if you’re breastfeeding an infant and have received the vaccine during your pregnancy, then you pass all of the immunity you acquired from the vaccine onto your newborn or infant—this is called “passive immunity,” and it’s a benefit of breastfeeding, she explains.
It’s not just the flu shot, either. Here’s why parents need to be up-to-date on all their vaccinations
Don’t miss these 40 things your doctor wishes you knew about vaccines.