Posted by Allison Grant, December 10, 2018 (last updated on October 22, 2019)
This story has been updated for the 2019–2020 flu season.
Did you know that, on average, between 5-20% of people in the United States get the flu each year? That’s roughly 16 to 64 million people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 959,000 of those people are hospitalized due to complications from the flu, while over 70,000 flu-related deaths occur. Those numbers show just how important it is to take flu season seriously.
As with any other type of illness, prevention is the best protection. With the 2019-2020 flu season approaching full swing, now is the time to start planning ahead for how you’ll keep yourself and your family safe and healthy. Keep reading to find out what the flu is, the pros and cons of getting the flu shot, how the vaccine works, and where you can get your annual flu shot.
What is the flu?
If you begin to notice symptoms like sneezing, coughing, and congestion, you may wonder if you have a common cold or the flu. Since both are contagious viral infections, it can be easy to confuse the two. However, learning to identify the difference is important because unmonitored, the flu can turn into a more severe illness like pneumonia or bronchitis.
The influenza virus affects the lung, nose, and throat, and can be spread from skin to skin contact, exposure to a contaminated surface, through saliva, or by airborne respiratory droplets (expelled into the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes).
In general, flu symptoms tend to come on more abruptly, are more severe, and can last anywhere from a few days to two weeks. The symptoms of the flu can include:
- Sudden, excessive fatigue
- Body aches
- Sore throat
- A persistent cough
- Tightness of the chest
- Wheezing, runny nose and congestion
- Diarrhea, nausea and vomiting
If you catch the flu, your immune system creates antibodies to fight off the infection. Most of the time rest and plenty of fluids are enough to recover from on your own. However, severe flu symptoms should always be treated by your primary care doctor or at an urgent care center. If left untreated, persistent or acute symptoms could cause complications and require hospitalization. For the flu or any other urgent medical need, you can use Solv to book a same-day urgent care appointment in as little as two taps.
When does the 2019-2020 flu season start?
In the United States, October through May is considered flu season. Most people will get the flu between late December and early March, which are typically the coldest months of the year. The cold weather combined with the low humidity allow flu virus particles to remain in the air for longer, making it easier for them to spread from person to person.
It’s no coincidence that there’s an uptick in viral illness when children start back to school. The cooler weather and the close proximity to other kids make contagious illnesses more likely. Once school-aged children begin getting sick, it’s more common to see adults and younger kids catch those same viruses.
Who needs a flu shot for the 2019-2020 flu season?
As a general guideline, the CDC recommends that everyone 6 months or older should receive a flu shot. It’s especially important for people who have a high risk of developing complications from the flu to receive the vaccine. This includes:
- Children aged 6 months to 5 years
- Adults 65 or older
- Pregnant women
- Healthcare providers
- Nursing home residents
Children younger than 6 months and people with severe allergies to the flu vaccine or any ingredient it contains should not get the flu shot. If you’re uncertain about whether you or someone in your family should get a flu shot, it’s best to talk to your doctor and get a personalized recommendation.
When should you get a flu shot?
It takes roughly two weeks for the body to develop antibodies against the vaccine. If you’re exposed to the influenza virus before you get the vaccine, or within the two-week time frame after you get it, you can still catch the flu. For this reason, the CDC recommends that adults get vaccinated against the flu by the end of October. Children who need two doses of the vaccine should start the process sooner, so they are protected by the time the 2019-2020 flu season rolls around.
Flu vaccines are usually made available starting in September until about mid-November, so even if you miss the recommended window, it’s never too late to get vaccinated.
How does the flu vaccine work?
Flu vaccines work by stimulating your body’s immune system to create antibodies — large proteins that neutralize harmful bacteria and viruses. The antibodies developed as a reaction to the flu shot help to fight off any viral infection that you’re exposed to during flu season.
How effective is the flu vaccine?
The efficacy of a flu shot varies from year to year, and between individuals. The factors that determine how well the flu shot prevents illness include the age and health of the person receiving the flu shot and the similarity between the strains circulating and the strains vaccinated against. Overall, the CDC has found that receiving a flu shot lowers the risk of catching the flu by about 40 to 60%. Those are odds worth considering if you’re unsure about getting the flu shot.
Common symptoms and side effects of the flu shot
The flu shot has, time and again, proven to be the most effective means of preventing the flu. Still, it’s normal to wonder what the symptoms of getting a flu shot are and if it’s worth the risk. Let’s take a look at some of the possible symptoms and side effects of a flu shot.
Common mild symptoms of a flu shot
Most of these symptoms will be mild and will go away on their own within a few days.
Rare side effects of a flu shot
If you experience any of these, seek medical attention right away.
On that note, it’s still safe to say that the many benefits associated with getting a flu shot far outweigh the risks. These benefits include:
- Reduced risk of getting the flu
- Reduced chance of being hospitalized with flu-related complications, especially for young children, the elderly, and people with diabetes or chronic lung conditions
- Less severe flu symptoms if you do get it
- Reduced risk of flu-related respiratory illness in pregnant women and their babies
- Lowered rates of cardiac problems for people with heart disease
As always, if you’re concerned about getting a flu shot or any other vaccine this year, it’s important to have a conversation with your doctor.
What you need to know about flu shots
Each year, the World Health Organization (WHO) conducts research on which influenza viruses are most likely to spread, which are making people ill, and how effective the previous year’s vaccines were at protecting against those viruses. The WHO then gives their findings to the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), who makes the final call on which flu vaccine viruses will be included in the upcoming season’s flu shots.
Since there are many strains of flu viruses that change every year, this process is an important part of developing safe and effective vaccines. Here’s what you need to know about the 2019-2020 flu shots.
Types of flu shots for the 2019-2020 flu season
There are three types of flu viruses: types A, B, and C. Type A tends to be more serious and is likely to mutate into a new strain that people haven’t developed a resistance to. Type B flu viruses are less serious but most often affect young children. Type C causes illnesses similar to a cold.
When it comes to flu season, researchers find that there are nearly always one or two strains of Type A and Type B virus circulating.
In response to the identified strains, there are two common vaccinations available each year:
- Trivalent — this vaccine protects against three strains of the flu: two A strains and one B strain. The trivalent vaccines have traditionally been the most popular and affordable flu vaccine.
- Quadrivalent — this vaccine offers protection against four strains: two A strains and two B strains. For the 2019-2020 flu season all regular-dose flu shots will be quadrivalent and protect from all 4 strains of the flu virus.
In addition to these, qualified patients may be able to get either an egg-free trivalent vaccine or a high dose vaccine. The egg-free version of the flu vaccine, called Flublok, is made for people with severe egg allergies but is only available to those over the age of 18. One thing to flag, this year all four of the vaccine viruses used to produce cell-grown flu vaccine will have been grown in cells, not eggs. The high dose vaccine is intended for people age 65 and older, to make up for their weakened antibodies. Both alternative vaccines are just as safe and effective as the standard shots.
In past years, a nasal-spray flu vaccine, called FluMist, was available. As of the 2016-2017 flu season, and into 2019 and beyond, the CDC has advised against it due to research that found it ineffective.
Which virus strains are in the 2019-2020 flu shots?
For the 2019-2020 flu season, the FDA has cleared the following strains for each vaccine:
- A/Brisbane/02/2018 (H1N1)pdm09-like virus (updated)
- A/Kansas/14/2017 (H3N2)-like virus (updated)
- B/Colorado/06/2017-like (Victoria lineage) virus
- The three recommended viruses above, plus B/Phuket/3073/2013-like (Yamagata lineage) virus
This year, all regular-dose flu shots will be quadrivalent. Your doctor or a provider at an urgent care clinic can advise which type of flu shot will be best for you, as well as answer any questions you have about what is in the flu shot.
Where can you get a flu shot?
It’s not quite flu season, which makes it the perfect time to start planning for when you’ll get your vaccine. You may need to take time off work or keep the kids home from school, so knowing where you’ll go ahead of time can make the whole process go more smoothly.
Most urgent care centers and pharmacies offer walk-in flu shots for every member of the family but that can end up taking a lot of time. The best way to ensure that you will be seen quickly and on your time is to find a place in your area that offers flu shots AND takes appointments. You can go to vaccinefinder.org and enter your address or zip code or you can book an appointment with Solv online and can typically get an appointment in as little as 15
Getting a flu shot may not be anyone’s idea of fun but one thing is certain: making an appointment to get the vaccine at the beginning of flu season can save you a lot of time, money, and sniffles down the road. Remember, the flu shot is the best way to prevent illness.