Each year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) closely monitor flu patterns within the general population. Why? So they can work to develop the most effective vaccine possible for this year’s flu season.

Annual flu shots are important for so many reasons, from reducing your risk of getting sick to saving lives. In fact, according to the CDC, vaccinations helped prevent an estimated 7.5 million illnesses in the United States during the 2019-2020 season. Flu shots also helped prevent 3.7 million influenza-related medical visits, 105,000 hospitalizations and 6,800 deaths during that same season.

But the 2021-2022 flu season is different. COVID-19 continues to affect our communities. And in our opinion, this makes getting your flu shot even more important.

Read on to learn more about how the flu vaccine works, why annual flu shots are recommended, when the best time to get your flu shot is, and more.

What you need to know about flu shots this year

1. The flu shot is safe

One of the biggest myths about flu shots is that they can give you the flu because they contain live virus. This is simply not true.

Since their first civilian use in 1945, flu vaccines have consisted of dead (or inactive) strains of influenza A and influenza B viruses. Because these flu strains are dead, it’s impossible for the shot to give you the flu.

So, how does the flu shot work? When you get a flu shot, the vaccine is usually injected into your arm. The vaccine triggers an immune response in your body. And even though the virus is inactive, your body still reacts by building antibodies that fight these specific flu strains.

While the flu shot may cause side effects such as headache, nausea, fever and muscle aches, the flu shot does not cause death – rather, it greatly reduces the risk of flu-associated hospitalization. Serious reactions to the flu vaccine may include allergic reactions, though this is very rare and effective treatments are available.

2. The flu shot works to significantly reduce your risk of getting influenza

Since influenza A and influenza B strains are complex, a small number of people who get their flu shot will still get the flu. But that doesn’t mean you should skip getting your flu shot this year. It just means that the vaccine won’t make you invincible to everything out there this year.

Influenza is serious and it can lead to complications. Older adults, kids and pregnant women are at a higher risk for the flu. But the flu vaccine protects you and those around you from around half of all flu viruses. The CDC does an incredible amount of vaccine safety testing and monitoring.

How effective is the flu shot? Generally, the flu vaccine can help reduce your risk of getting the flu by up to 60%.

3. The flu vaccine cannot protect you against COVID-19 (and vice versa)

While COVID-19 symptoms and flu symptoms can be similar, these two illnesses are caused by different viruses. So, that means that a flu shot cannot help protect you against COVID-19, nor can COVID-19 vaccines protect you against the flu.

But it is possible for you to be infected by both viruses (and other respiratory conditions) at the same time – which can lead to serious complications. The best way to protect yourself and those around you is by getting vaccinated for both influenza and COVID-19.

Data suggests the flu vaccine and all currently authorized COVID-19 vaccines are effective in preventing their respective illnesses – with the greatest protection coming against severe illness, hospitalization and death.

4. The flu virus is constantly evolving – that’s why annual flu shots are recommended

There are several influenza viruses out there. And like all viruses, flu viruses are complex and constantly changing. This is why an annual vaccine is developed based on the strains and types that are expected to be the most common that year.

Unfortunately, this means that last year’s flu shot won’t protect you this year. This also means that this year’s vaccine won’t protect you from every strain and type of flu out there. All 2021-2022 flu vaccines will be quadrivalent, meaning that they’ll protect against four different strains of the flu.

What are the different types of influenza viruses?

There are four main categories of influenza viruses, two of which are linked to seasonal epidemics.

Influenza A strains (H1N1, H3N2)

Influenza A strains are the most common flu linked to epidemics. There are dozens of subtypes, but a few have emerged in recent years as the most common culprits of sickness. For the 2020-2021 flu season, the CDC made updates to vaccines for both H1N1 and H3N2.

Influenza B strains (B/Yamagata, B/Victoria)

There are fewer strains of influenza B viruses, but these are also linked to the seasonal flu. This year, the CDC made updates to B/Victoria-lineage vaccines.

Influenza C strains

Influenza C is linked to mild respiratory illness and is generally not the cause of severe flu cases or epidemics.

Influenza D strains

Influenza D strains are only known to affect cattle, and do not cause illness among humans.

5. The best time to get a flu shot is as soon as you can

When is the best time to get a flu shot?

The earlier the better – preferably before flu season begins.

If you can, we recommend that you get your flu shot as soon as the vaccine is available. Why? Because we don’t know exactly when the flu will strike. While flu cases usually start ramping up in November and December, the flu season can begin as early as October and last as late as May.

When will the flu vaccine be available?

The CDC usually finalizes recommendations for flu vaccinations in August, and the vaccine is usually available in early September. But flu shots can be available through March. The important thing is that you get vaccinated.

Currently, there are no expected delays in national distribution.

How long does the flu vaccine last?

The protection you get from the flu shot lasts for about six months, so late protection is better than no protection at all.

6. Flu shots are recommended for everyone 6 months old and up

The CDC sets vaccine recommendations for the United States, including annual childhood immunization schedules. When it comes to protecting against the flu, vaccination is recommended for everyone 6 months of age and older.

But depending on your age, there are some specific vaccination recommendations, options and in some cases, requirements:

  • Ages 6 months to 8 years: For children getting a flu shot for the first time, two doses are needed. The CDC recommends kids get their first dose as soon as possible so that they can get their second dose by the end of October. If your child has received a flu shot in the past, they’ll only need one dose – which they should get by the end of October.
  • Ages 8 to 65: Generally, the recommendation is to be vaccinated by the end of October. Also, non-pregnant adults should wait until after July and August to get vaccinated, unless they have reason to believe that they might not be able to get vaccinated later.
  • Ages 65 and up: Because older patients are at higher risk of complications from the flu, we recommend a high-dose flu shot for the best protection. This is a shot specifically designed with higher antigen amounts, and is designed to stimulate a greater immune response.
  • Pregnant women: Pregnant women, particularly those in their third trimester, should get their flu shot as soon as it’s available. This can help reduce the risk of illness during the first few months of their baby’s life.
  • Egg allergies: A special shot is available that’s made from a virus grown in a cell culture.

Also, if you have any severe, life-threatening allergies or you’ve had an allergic reaction to a previous flu shot or other immunization, talk with a doctor about your vaccination options.

7. It takes a little while for your flu shot to take effect

If you’re wondering how long it takes for flu shots to take effect, the answer is that it takes approximately two weeks for your immune system to be fully prepared.

Your immune system must build enough antibodies, which simply takes time. Unfortunately, if you’re exposed to flu viruses before your shot or within the two weeks following, you can still get sick. This is another reason why we recommend that you get your flu shot early.

8. FluMist is back for the 2021-2022 flu season

Nasal mist vaccine – commonly known as FluMist – is being offered again at HealthPartners and Park Nicollet.

FluMist – which is sprayed into your nose – is an effective option for those concerned about getting a shot, especially young kids. Our recent studies show that FluMist is safe to give to children and adults ages 2 to 49. If you’re interested in getting FluMist, just let us know when you make your appointment.

Flu season is coming. Get your flu shot and become a flu fighter.

When you get a flu shot, you’re not only protecting yourself from the flu but those around you too. It’s easy to get a flu shot. Just make a flu shot appointment at a place and time that works for you. You may even be able to get one the same day.

It’s also affordable. With many insurances – including HealthPartners – flu shots are 100% covered. And if you don’t have insurance, you can get one through HealthPartners and Park Nicollet for $50.

So, what are you waiting for? Make an appointment today.