For the past two years, the flu has essentially been MIA, with cases plummeting along with social distancing, mask-wearing and other steps people have had to take to slow the spread of COVID.
But this year, the flu virus, as rusty and dusty as it may be, looks likely to roar back, and that means it’s more important than ever to get a flu shot, experts say.
Typically characterized by fever, muscle aches, headaches and fatigue, the flu can become serious or life-threatening, especially for babies and the immunocompromised, pregnant and elderly. It can cause complications such as pneumonia and inflammation of the heart, brain or muscle tissues. The virus can also worsen chronic medical conditions such as asthma and heart disease.
About 20,000 to 40,000 people can die from the flu each flu season, which usually starts in October and can last until May. (The peak months are usually December through February.) The 2017-2018 season was particularly bad, with 52,000 deaths.
However, that number dropped to about 5,000 to 14,000 deaths in 2021-2022, which was lower than any of the 10 flu seasons prior to the pandemic. The previous year, flu activity was so low that the CDC couldn’t even generate burden estimates, which it does every year.
With cases expected to increase this season, a flu shot can help keep the risks at bay. There are at least two main reasons why you should get one every year: your immunity to vaccination and infection declines over time, and flu viruses are constantly changing, meaning that any protection that you have acquired from previous seasons could mean a zip this year.
Another reason it may be very important to get a flu shot this year is that your protection against the virus may not be as good, relatively speaking, after two years of little or no exposure.
“In other words, vaccination makes more people resistant to infection the following year because they have this vaccine-induced immunity that was then possibly boosted by an infection,” said Johns Hopkins virologist Andrew Pekosz. “But without [getting infected] Over several years, we run the risk of even more people being susceptible to the flu than we normally would, and that’s another reason why we would worry about a big flu season if the flu comes back.”
Here’s everything you need to know about flu shots this flu season.
Why you should get a flu shot this year
The U.S. is looking at the southern hemisphere’s flu season, which occurs earlier than in the north, for insight into how the virus might behave. Unfortunately, Australia’s flu fight this year was particularly “worrying”, Pekosz said.
The country not only had a large number of cases, but also experienced them earlier than usual.
“Those two things are of concern to us as we now think about how to prepare for a possible flu season along with maybe some spikes in COVID,” Pekosz told BuzzFeed News, “especially since we’re all back to working inside, the schools are full-time. , and we’re not doing a lot of our public health interventions anymore.”
And based on data from Australia so far, children in the U.S. may be more likely to get the flu this season, Pekosz said: “These are people who haven’t had as much exposure to the flu, they haven’t seen a lot. flu seasons, and were perhaps even more susceptible than larger parts of the population.”
Preventive measures for COVID, such as masking, have also dropped significantly compared to the last two years.
Vaccination usually provides protection during flu season. You can still get sick, but a flu shot should reduce your chances of needing emergency medical help. A 2021 study found that adults who received a flu shot had a 26% and 31% lower risk of being admitted to the ICU and dying from the flu, respectively, compared to unvaccinated adults .
Flu vaccines protect against four flu viruses that can circulate in a given season. So if the vaccine doesn’t adequately protect you against one of them, it can still protect you against the others.
However, like vaccines against COVID, this protection may wane over time. A CDC analysis of flu vaccine effectiveness between 2011 and 2015 found that protection declined by 6 to 11 percent per month, depending on the strain of virus involved, and remained intact for about five to six months after vaccination. In general, the vaccine’s effectiveness declines a little faster for people 65 and older.
What you need to know about this year’s flu shot
First, everyone 6 months of age and older should get a flu shot, health officials say, with some specific recommendations or exceptions based on age, health and medical history. allergies
And yes, you can get any of your COVID shots and/or boosters at the same time as your flu shot. Most health experts, including Pekosz, recommend it, mostly because of its convenience. (Don’t get the vaccine if you still have COVID; wait until you’ve recovered so you don’t infect anyone in the process.)
The best time to get a flu shot is in October, but if you miss that window, you should get it as soon as possible. Better late than never because flu seasons are becoming more unpredictable and generally shift to occur later in the year, the CDC says, with some seasons peaking as late as March.
And, similar to the COVID vaccination, you should still get the flu shot even if you’ve already had the flu because the vaccine can protect you against other circulating flu viruses.
This year, the CDC recommends that people 65 and older get a higher dose or a flu shot with an adjuvant (an extra ingredient that improves the immune response): Fluzone, Flublok, or Fluad, which can cause side effects more temporary, such as headaches. , fatigue, muscle aches and pain at the injection site for one to three days. The new recommendation is based on evidence showing that these injections are more effective in older adults than the standard injections, which are still recommended for all other age groups.
The guidance is especially important because people 65 and older are more likely to suffer serious consequences from the flu. The CDC says that about 70-85% of flu-related deaths and 50-70% of hospitalizations have occurred in this age group.
Other people at risk of a serious flu infection are those with chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes or asthma, those who are pregnant, and children under the age of five, especially those under the age of two.
The good news so far is that this year’s flu vaccine appears to match the viruses currently circulating, Pekosz said, but given the lack of flu cases in recent seasons, “we’re very concerned that we haven’t caught enough strains to get a good idea of how the virus has fared during the pandemic.”
It usually takes about nine months between when scientists decide which viruses they want to target in next year’s flu vaccine and when it’s time to vaccinate people, Pekosz said, meaning they’re making decisions sooner that even the current flu season ends. “This is not an ideal place to be,” he added, especially since circulating flu viruses can still mutate toward the end of the season.
The delay ultimately comes down to how the flu vaccine is made, which is a much longer process than the COVID vaccines. Both Moderna and Pfizer, the companies behind the coronavirus vaccines, are conducting clinical trials for their own flu vaccines, a development that would be a “real game changer,” according to Pekosz, because “we could expect until the end of flu season.” to make the decision about the right virus strains and be better prepared for the next flu season.”
In the meantime, wearing a face mask when in crowded indoor areas and staying home when you’re sick will definitely help. And remember: there are four different and effective antiviral medications that can help you feel better and prevent serious illness; they work best if taken within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms, according to the CDC.
“The more you can do to help protect yourself from serious illness, the better,” Pekosz said.