The signs in the pharmacy reminding you to get your flu shot start cropping up in late summer, but is that really the best time for a flu shot? If you get a flu shot in August, will it last until springtime? In past years, I’ve been given conflicting information from pharmacists, doctors and other medical professionals, so before getting my vaccine this year, I wanted to check in with a few doctors to get their take.
To start with, the optimal time to get your flu shot depends on who you are and where you will be during flu season, Dr. Laurie Mortara, an infectious disease specialist at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center in Long Beach, California, tells me.
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Of the three doctors I spoke with, Mortara and Dr. Thomas Vovan, a specialist in pulmonary and critical care medicine at the Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in Laguna Hills, California, agree that flu season typically lasts from October through May. Dr. Marjan Karimabadi of MemorialCare Medical Group in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, put it starting on Sept. 1 and lasting through April 30, but notes that the actual flu season is not clearly defined and changes from year to year. Vovan says the flu season usually peaks in February.
“Our recommendation is to get the flu shot whenever it is available,” Vovan says, noting that typically, his hospital will start their immunization campaign for the staff in October. Having said that, some physicians still recommend getting the flu shot through March for high-risk patients, like those with asthma, COPD, diabetes, HIV and cancer, he adds.
Women who are pregnant, people with substantial lung disease or immune-suppressing illnesses and those who work in health care might want to talk with their doctors about getting an earlier shot, Mortara recommends.
But is it possible to get a flu shot too early? Vovan says that it has been predicted that this year’s flu season will come early, and physicians who recommend getting an early flu shot might be timing it for peak flu season in February. Most important, though, he explains that once your body is exposed to that particular strain of the flu, you will have immunity for the rest of the season — it doesn’t wear off.
“Although there is not much direct data available on how long the vaccine protection lasts in body, it is sufficient to carry the immunity through the flu season,” Karimabadi adds.
Mortara says that it’s important to remember that not all flu can be prevented and “we cannot predict if the flu will hit your city early or late, so getting a vaccination early is better than getting none at all.” It’s also important to note that it usually takes around two weeks for the flu vaccine to build up the antibodies to fight the virus, Mortara and Karimabadi say.
For people 65 and older who might not build up as high of an antibody level, it might be optimal to wait to get vaccinated until between Halloween and Thanksgiving and ask about getting a high-dose flu shot, Mortara notes, adding that 80 to 90 percent of flu deaths occur in that demographic.
Another group who should pay particular attention to when they get their flu shot is international travelers, who according to Mortara should get vaccinated two weeks before their trip.
Lastly, here are a few more tips from Mortara:
- The flu shot is not a live vaccine, so it cannot transmit the virus to you.
- There is a medication for those who get the flu, but it must be given within 48 hours of symptoms (high fever, muscle aches, chest congestion, diarrhea).
- Nothing beats not getting or spreading the flu than good and frequent hand-washing and coughing into tissue or the angle of your elbow.
So wash those hands, get your shot and have a healthy and safe flu season.