With all the talk about COVID-19 vaccines and boosters, it’s easy to forget that another dangerous respiratory virus is poised to strike — the flu.
Experts worry that we could be heading into a big flu season, especially if enough Americans do not get their annual flu shot, which is now widely available.
“We are worried the incredibly low influenza rates that we saw last season could create a rebound influenza epidemic this year,” says Dr. Mark Roberts, director of the Public Health Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh.
Most years as many as 12,000 to 52,000 people die from the flu in the U.S. But the unusually mild flu season last year means that fewer people have immunity to strains likely to be circulating this winter. That could lead to anywhere from 100,000 to 400,000 additional hospitalizations for influenza, according to two recent computer modeling studies done by Roberts and his colleagues.
“It could be really bad — and it could be really bad at a time when there’s still quite a bit of COVID-19 filling up our hospitals,” he says.
Getting the flu shot remains the single most powerful action a person can take to fend off the days- or weeks-long, wracking muscle aches, fever and sometimes deadly respiratory infection that is influenza.
“Two reasons make getting vaccinated against the flu the wise choice,” says Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation of Infectious Diseases. “First, it’s been proven year after year that you’re in better shape to fight off the flu if you get the vaccine. Second, by getting vaccinated against the flu, you help protect the people around you.”
Here’s a guide to getting yourself vaccinated against the potentially fatal virus.
I heard that the flu essentially disappeared last year. Do I really need a flu shot this year?
Yes. Last year saw a record-low number of flu cases, likely thanks to widespread mask wearing, remote work and school, and physical distancing. But this year, experts fear that the reopening of schools, decreased adherence to pandemic precautions and surging delta variant infections could create a double whammy: a very serious flu and COVID-19 season. Already, cases of RSV, yet another serious respiratory virus in children, are spiking. “This suggests that flu will be back [too],” says L.J Tan, executive director of the Immunization Action Coalition.
Who should get a flu shot?
Anyone 6 months and older, unless your doctor has specifically recommended that you not get a flu shot because of a prior, rare, severe reaction, says Dr. Lisa Grohskopf, a medical officer in the influenza division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
When’s the best time to get the flu shot?
Why not now?
Flu season starts in October in the U.S. While there’s some concern that immunity might wane before the end of flu season in May if you get the vaccine too early, there’s not enough data to know the optimal time to get the shot, Grohskopf says.
The CDC says aim to get your flu vaccine by the end of October. By then, cases will have started to mount, and many people will be just a few weeks away from travel for Thanksgiving and Christmas. That said, “getting vaccinated at any time during the flu season [can] still be beneficial,” says Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Utah Health.
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