It seems the advertisements and public service announcements to get flu shots start earlier and earlier every year. But if you get the shot in August or September, are you protected for the entire flu season? Understanding when vaccines usually roll out, when flu season occurs, and your personal risk of becoming seriously ill (or infecting someone else) will help you decide how to time your shot.
When Is Flu Season?
Although influenza viruses circulate year round, activity typically begins ramping up in October and can last through May of the following year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The exact timeframe can vary from year to year, but this is what we refer to as flu season. Peak flu activity usually occurs between December and February.
When Are Flu Shots Available?
Vaccines are usually available in August, but the timing may not be the same every year. “A new flu vaccine is manufactured every season,” explains Tom Skinner, a senior public affairs officer for the CDC. “The CDC, along with other organizations, studies virus samples collected from around the world to identify the influenza viruses that are the most likely to cause illness during the upcoming flu season. Production varies and depends upon on a number of factors, including the viruses chosen for inclusion in the vaccine.”
Can You Get Vaccinated Too Early?
This is a common concern since flu season can last through May, and the CDC has updated its recommendations for timing this year: “For non-pregnant adults, vaccination in July and August should be avoided, even if vaccine is available during these months, unless there is concern that later vaccination might not be possible.” (Guidance for children and certain pregnant persons is different.)
Keep in mind that it takes about two weeks for antibodies to develop and provide full immunity following the shot. Immunity remains effective for up to one year, but the protective antibodies do decline over time.
When Is the Best Time to Get a Flu Shot for Seniors?
The CDC recommends that everyone six months and older who isn’t contraindicated get an annual flu vaccination by the end of October when influenza activity typically begins increasing. For people over 65, getting the shot each year in September or October is especially important. (This also applies to people they have regular contact with, such as family members, caregivers and friends.)
Additionally, older adults should consider getting a higher dose flu vaccine, an adjuvanted vaccine or a recombinant vaccine. These types are designed to address age-related decline of the immune system by triggering the production of more antibodies. However, the CDC notes that “…vaccination should not be delayed for a specific vaccine product when another vaccine licensed for use in people 56 and older is available.”
Flu Vaccination: Better Early or Late Than Never
While getting a flu shot in September or October is ideal, both early birds and procrastinators can still benefit from vaccination. The bottom line is that, whether you get your flu shot in August or December, some protection is better than nothing.
Flu symptoms like runny nose, coughing, sore throat, fever and body aches may sound minor, but they usually intensify very quickly. Advancing age often weakens the immune system and puts seniors at greater risk for serious complications from the flu like bronchitis, pneumonia, heart problems, secondary bacterial infections and even sepsis. It’s important to understand that these complications can be fatal and are more likely in seniors who have chronic medical issues, such as lung disease, heart disease, diabetes and neurological conditions like dementia.
Contact your doctor or pharmacist for guidance if you have questions about which vaccine is best for you and your family members and when to schedule your shots. For additional information on the 2021-2022 flu season and this year’s vaccines, visit CDC.gov/flu.
Sources: The Flu Season (https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/season/flu-season.htm); Who Needs a Flu Vaccine and When (https://www.cdc.gov/flu/prevent/vaccinations.htm); Frequently Asked Influenza (Flu) Questions: 2021-2022 Season (https://www.cdc.gov/flu/season/faq-flu-season-2021-2022.htm); Flu & People 65 Years and Older (https://www.cdc.gov/flu/highrisk/65over.htm); Flu Symptoms & Complications (https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/symptoms.htm)