Is It Too Late to Get a Flu Shot?

Even though flu season is in full swing, it’s not too late to get vaccinated.

The flu is a highly contagious virus that can lead to serious outcomes for some people. Most people get better on their own, but others may experience bronchitis, pneumonia, hospitalization, and in rare cases, even death.

One of the best ways to protect yourself from getting the flu is to get a flu shot. Experts recommend getting vaccinated against the flu around September or October (the start of flu season), but any time during flu season is not too late. It takes about two weeks to develop immunity to the flu after you get the shot so the sooner you get the shot, the better.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s especially important to get a flu shot this year even if you don’t normally do so. Otherwise, if you get the flu, you may find it difficult to determine if you have the flu or COVID-19. If your immune system is compromised while fighting the flu, you may also be more susceptible to being infected by the novel coronavirus. And if both the flu and COVID-19 spread this winter, hospitals may be overwhelmed trying to help the large number of people needing care.

What are the benefits of getting a flu shot?

There are numerous benefits to getting a flu shot for you and others. These include:

  • It helps reduce the risk of you becoming ill, having to see a doctor, being hospitalized or even dying due to influenza. Even if you do get sick, research shows your illness may not be as severe as it would be if you did not get vaccinated.
  • It helps protect people with chronic health conditions, who are at a greater risk of complications from the flu.
  • It helps protect people with whom you are in close contact so they don’t get the flu from you.
  • It helps protect pregnant women and their unborn babies, as well as babies too young to be vaccinated.
  • It helps reduce the extra burden on healthcare workers who need to care for people with COVID-19, as well as for people who are hospitalized due to the flu.

In addition to the known benefits of flu vaccines that are well documented, getting a flu shot may also help you avoid COVID-19 complications. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine found that people who received a flu vaccine up to a year before contracting COVID-19 were nearly 2 1/2 times less likely to be hospitalized and 3 times less likely to be admitted to an intensive care unit due to complications from the novel coronavirus than people who did not get vaccinated. Researchers are not indicating that the flu vaccine specifically protects against COVID-19, but theorize it may prime the immune system for an invading virus so the body is more equipped to fight it. This is the first study to identify any linkage of influenza vaccine to severity of COVID-19 infection so it needs to be restudied to verify the accuracy of these conclusions.

Are there side effects from flu vaccines?

Some people mistakenly think they can get the flu from a flu vaccine but this is not true. The regular flu vaccine, given with a needle, is what is considered a dead vaccine – it does not contain live virus. Therefore, there is no way to get the flu from this type of vaccine.
Nevertheless, you may experience some mild side effects after being vaccinated, such as:

  • headache
  • muscle aches
  • low-grade fever
  • redness, tenderness or swelling at the injection site

Feeling slightly feverish or achy may make you feel like you have the flu but these are normal reactions to your immune system’s response to the vaccine. Typically, any side effects only last for 1 or 2 days.

Why do some people get flu-like symptoms after getting the shot?

In addition to the mild side effects noted above, you may experience flu-like symptoms due to these reasons:

  • You may have been exposed to a rhinovirus associated with the common cold, which has symptoms similar to the flu.
  • You may have been exposed to a strain of influenza other than the one(s) for which you were vaccinated.
  • You may have been exposed to the flu just before getting the flu shot or within two weeks after receiving the shot, before you have developed immunity.

Where can I get a flu shot?

If you haven’t already gotten a flu shot this year, it’s not too late. There are usually a number of convenient ways to get your flu shot. These include:

  • Your primary care provider
  • Your local pharmacy
  • A supermarket with a pharmacy inside

To find out more about where to get a flu shot in your area, visit your local community or health department website. Or call your doctor’s office or your insurance company.

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Date Last Reviewed: November 3, 2020

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD

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