How to Protect Yourself From the Flu

Experts are anticipating a more severe flu season this year — here’s what you need to know to help avoid getting sick.

A woman in a scarf taking her temperature
A woman in a scarf taking her temperature

As U.S. health officials continue to monitor the rise of COVID-19 cases and the omicron variant, they are also reminding the public to be vigilant about another contagious virus — the flu. From September 2020 through May 2021, the CDC reported an “unusually low” amount of flu activity, with only 1,675 cases reported in the U.S. over that time period. This year, however, there have already been several flu outbreaks on college campuses and the number of flu cases is increasing weekly.

“Last year’s season was mild since many people stayed isolated due to COVID,” says pediatrician and immunization expert Dr. Melissa Stockwell, chief of the Division of Child and Adolescent Health at NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital and NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “This year we are concerned it will be a more severe season.”

The single best way to protect yourself from the flu and COVID-19? Get the vaccine for both, and the COVID booster if you’re eligible, says Dr. Stockwell, who is also an associate professor of pediatrics at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and an associate professor of population and family health at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. Dr. Stockwell shared with Health Matters tips on how to protect yourself from the flu this season.

How bad will the flu season be this year?
Flu is unpredictable, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see a severe flu season this year. Because many of the COVID-19 safety measures, such as social distancing and universal masking, have eased, and our immune systems weren’t exposed to flu last year, it may be easier for flu to circulate.

So far, more than 99% of the cases reported are the H3N2 strain, which we know tends to cause more severe infections particularly in the elderly, so that is a concern.

I got a flu shot last year. Do I need another one this year?
Yes, you need to get an annual flu shot, because its protectiveness wears off. You also need a new one at the beginning of flu season because we often have different strains that are potentially circulating from year to year. For example, the H3N2 component of the vaccine was updated for this year’s vaccine.

It takes about two weeks for the flu vaccine to reach effectiveness in the body. So for your body to be protected, it’s really important that you get the flu vaccine as soon as possible, if you haven’t already.

Can I get my COVID-19 booster shot and flu vaccine at the same time?
Yes, studies have shown that people can get both shots at the same time and it won’t affect their antibody response. In fact, if you’re due for both, we don’t recommend waiting at this point in the season.

Can you get the flu from the vaccine?
No, you can’t get the flu from the vaccine. Side effects from the vaccine are generally mild. Some common side effects include soreness or redness at the injection site, fever, or an all-over achy feeling the next day. These generally go away on their own within a few days.

Dr. Melissa Stockwell

Dr. Melissa Stockwell

Are allergic reactions common with the flu shot?
Severe allergic reactions to flu vaccines are rare. We used to say that if you had an egg allergy you can’t get the flu vaccine. But that’s not true anymore. Most people with an egg allergy can get the regular flu vaccine, so ask your healthcare provider. If you have a severe egg allergy, make sure you get the flu shot in a medical setting where a healthcare provider can recognize and manage allergic reactions. Also, while the flu vaccine typically uses egg-based technology, manufacturers now make a vaccine that’s not made with egg.

Can you still get the flu even if you get vaccinated?
The flu vaccine in general is about 40% to 60% percent effective, depending on the year, for a number of reasons. It could be because the flu strains in the vaccine weren’t a good match to that season’s flu virus, or because the flu changed during the season. It could be because some people may have been exposed before they got vaccinated. Or they could have been exposed within that two-week period after they got vaccinated but before the vaccine became effective.

However, even when effectiveness may be, for example, 40%, that’s still much more effective than not getting vaccinated at all. There’s also some research that it can make symptoms less severe if someone does still get the flu after being vaccinated.

In addition to the vaccine, what else should people do to prevent the flu?
While getting a flu shot is the single best way to prevent the flu, we’re now all familiar with other everyday precautions that help prevent the spread of viruses: masking, hand hygiene and social distancing. Avoid close contact with people who are sick, stay home if you’re not feeling well, and clean and disinfect surfaces in your home that are frequently touched. In general, it is important to get enough sleep, drink enough fluids, eat well, exercise, and manage your stress.

Is the vaccine dangerous for children or pregnant women?
Since children and pregnant women are at very high risk of complications from the flu, it’s actually quite the opposite — they need to make sure that they get vaccinated. Babies 6 months and older should get the flu shot. Babies under 6 months have some protection if their mom got vaccinated while pregnant, which is another reason it’s really important for pregnant women to get the flu shot. It is also important to “cocoon” babies by vaccinating people who will be around them and could potentially pass on the flu to them.

Do children need multiple flu shots to be fully protected?
Kids who are 6 months through 8 years old may need two shots in a season, depending on how many shots they’ve gotten before. A child in this age group getting vaccinated for the first time, or who has received only one flu vaccine in his or her lifetime, will need two shots, generally one month apart, to be protected for that flu season. It is really important that families come back and get that second dose. We know that nationally only about half of kids who need that second dose actually come back and get it. That’s a problem, because kids really aren’t protected unless they get those two doses if they’re in that age category and they haven’t had enough previous vaccinations. And for children who are also eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, (those ages 5 and older), we recommend they get both vaccines so that they can be protected from both flu and COVID-19.

Melissa Stockwell, M.D., M.P.H., is chief of the Division of Child and Adolescent Health at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, an associate attending pediatrician at NewYork-Presbyterian’s Ambulatory Care Network, and the medical director for the NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital Immunization Registry. She is also an associate professor of pediatrics and population and family health at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and Mailman School of Public Health, as well as director of the Center for Children’s Digital Health Research in the Department of Pediatrics. 

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