You’ve probably been hearing a lot about COVID-19 vaccines lately, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed at the prospect of yet another needle in the form of a flu shot. As we roll into the fall season — and annual flu shot messaging kicks into high gear — consider that a flu shot can make a large impact on your chance of catching a nasty flu bug. However, being a bit focused on shots alone can make you lose sight of the other important precautions we should all be taking to avoid getting the flu (and other viruses, too).
Here’s everything you need to know about preventing the flu this season, especially if you’re on the fence about whether or not to get a flu shot.
What is the Flu?
The flu, also known by its formal name, influenza, is a respiratory virus spread through droplets of human waste. Ways such droplets can be spread include being expelled by coughing, sneezing, vomiting, or defecating. This makes the flu virus (along with other viruses that are spread by droplets, like COVID-19) highly transmissible. According to the CDC, during the 2019-2020 flu season alone, 56 million Americans suffered from the flu.
What Are the Symptoms of the Flu?
Quite simply, the flu can really knock you off your feet. People who catch the flu can struggle with various symptoms such as, fevers, chills, headaches, extreme tiredness, body aches, joint pain, sore throat, coughing, and congestion symptoms. The really unlucky flu victims can even have digestive problems like diarrhea.
How Bad is the Flu?
If you get the flu, you may be stopped in your tracks for a few days. The flu is a respiratory virus just like COVID-19, which means that if you feel sick this season, it can be difficult to know which virus you’ve succumbed to. This is why keeping a close eye on your symptoms and getting evaluated at a local walk-in clinic is very important.
For people who are immunosuppressed (because they’re taking certain medications, they’re pregnant, or they have other underlying health conditions), the flu can even be deadly. In fact, during the 2019-2020 flu season, between 24,000 and 62,000 people died from the flu, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Can I Prevent the Flu Without a Flu Shot?
A flu shot can definitely reduce your chances of getting the flu, but it's not the only tool in the anti-virus toolbox. According to the CDC, you can greatly reduce your chances of getting the flu and stop the spread of the flu by following the same practices that keep you safe from COVID-19.
As a refresher, these flu-prevention methods include:
- Avoiding spending time with people who are sick
- Washing your hands thoroughly with soap and water as much as possible
- Avoiding touching your face
- Sanitizing your home environment by disinfecting surfaces, especially handles, knobs, and light switches
- Sanitizing personal items, such as cell phones and keys
You may already be avoiding crowded public places — and wearing a mask if you can’t avoid them — and these practices can also help you lower your risk of contracting the flu.
Considering a Flu Shot?
If you are interested in flu prevention, the CDC advises that a flu vaccine is a great way to protect yourself. Getting a flu shot is like putting on a coat of protective armor — it doesn’t completely guarantee that you won’t get harmed, but it can greatly reduce your chances. In fact, the CDC reports that an annual flu shot can drop your chances of getting the flu by 40 to 60 percent. The flu virus — and the flu vaccines that fight it — are slightly different each season, which is why there is a range in effectiveness.
When Should I Get a Flu Shot?
If you’re considering a flu shot, it helps to know when to get one and how long your protection will last. According to the CDC, getting a flu shot this year can help protect you for about six months, throughout the entire flu season. Generally, it is a good idea to get a flu shot before flu season is in full swing. Flu season runs from October to May in the United States, so the CDC recommends getting one by the end of October at the latest.
Where Should I Get a Flu Shot?
Luckily, you don’t have to worry about where to get a flu shot because walk-in retail clinics and urgent care centers are stocked and usually able to vaccinate you immediately and without advanced notice. You can also schedule a visit with your regular medical provider too. It might be a good idea to call ahead of time just to make sure that there are vaccines on hand, wherever you choose to go.
How Much Does a Flu Shot Cost?
If you’re considering getting a flu shot, you might also be thinking about the cost. However, getting a flu shot will often cost a lot less than actually getting the flu, especially if you have to miss several days of work while you’re recovering. Many health insurance plans will cover the price of a flu shot entirely. If you have to fund the shot yourself, you may be looking at around $0 to $50 according to GoodRx, but make sure to call ahead to ask for pricing information. It may also be worth your while to do an internet search for “free flu shots” because many college campuses and other community organizations host complimentary vaccination events.
What to Do If You Do Get the Flu
If you fall victim to the flu virus, all is not lost. Medical providers at urgent cares and retail clinics may opt to prescribe you special medications known as “antivirals” that can help your body fight off the flu faster. If you are generally in good health, the CDC states that you will likely be able to defeat the flu on your own, but an antiviral drug may still be valuable because it can make you less likely to pass your flu on to others who may be more vulnerable (like young children, the elderly, or people with chronic medical conditions). You may have heard of a few of these antiviral medicines, like Tamiflu or Relenza, among others.
According to the CDC, anti-flu medications are most effective and useful when they are taken as soon as possible after you fall ill, so make sure to head into an urgent care center or retail clinic if you begin having symptoms of fever, chills, cough, or body aches.
The Last Word on the Flu Shot
While a flu shot is highly recommended, especially for those who are particularly vulnerable to sickness, it’s important to remember the practices and additional options available to you to make sure that you’re doing all you can to stop the flu before it gets to you.
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- Vaccine Effectiveness: How Well Do the Flu Vaccines Work? (2021) https://www.cdc.gov/flu/vaccines-work/vaccineeffect.htm
- 2019-2020 U.S. Flu Season: Preliminary In-Season Burden Estimates https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/preliminary-in-season-estimates.htm