With back-to-school season upon us, fall and winter are just around the corner, which serves as a reminder that flu season is also on its way. Influenza viruses circulate all year, but flu activity usually begins to pick up in October and peaks between December and February, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
According to a 2018 CDC study, published in Clinical Infectious Diseases, on average, about 8 percent of the U.S. population gets sick from flu each season, with a range of between 3% and 11%, depending on the season. The same study highlighted why parents have extra cause to be concerned: Children are most likely to get sick from flu.
That said, it’s no surprise that the CDC recommends everyone six months and older get a flu shot early to preempt spread of the virus. They also point out that there are certain groups who are greater risk for complications from the flu: people with diabetes, pregnant women, adults over 65, children under five, those with asthma and other chronic lung diseases, those with kidney and liver disorders, heart disease patients, and those with compromised immune systems.
Here, the facts on flu shot availability and timing heading into the 2019-2020 flu season.
The 2019 Flu Shot Is Available Now
In a press release on August 15, RiteAid announced that seasonal flu shots are now available at 2,466 of the pharmacies nationwide.
For the 2019-2020 flu season, the national chain is offering a quadrivalent flu vaccine, which provides protection against four strains of the flu: the influenza A H3N2 virus, the influenza A H1N1 virus and two strains of influenza B virus; FLUAD, a trivalent vaccine with adjuvant, an ingredient that helps create a stronger immune response to vaccination, approved for people 65 and older; Fluzone HD, a high-dose vaccine indicated for patients 65 and older; and Flublok, a unique vaccine that is processed without EGG, indicated for patients 18 and older.
Flu shots are covered by most insurance plans, including Medicare Part B, and available during pharmacy hours. (You don’t have to make an appointment.)
Jocelyn Konrad, executive vice president, pharmacy and retail operations, Rite Aid, said in the release, “Although last year’s flu season was less severe than the year before, it was the longest in 10 years. With flu season getting longer, it’s even more important to get a flu shot early. Receiving a flu shot remains the best way to protect against the flu and its potentially severe consequences. We encourage everyone to stop by their local Rite Aid to get a flu shot today and help create flu-free communities.”
If you happen to live closer to a CVS than a RiteAid, you’re in luck, as well. A spokesperson for CVS noted that the majority of CVS Pharmacy stores and MinuteClinic locations are currently stocked and able to administer the flu shot to patients at their convenience.
You can also check with your health care provider, urgent care clinic, or local pharmacy to see if they’re administering this season’s flu vaccine. Most doctors cover the total cost of the shot for patients who have health insurance.
How Long Will the Flu Shot Protect You?
If you’re accustomed to getting your shot in October, you might wonder if it’s possible to get it too early and inadvertently limit your coverage for the duration of flu season.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells doctors that it’s safe to make flu shots available to all age groups whenever the vaccine becomes available every year. That said, they note that, “No one can predict when influenza disease will peak in a given season. Several studies have reported decreases in vaccine effectiveness within a single influenza season with increasing time since vaccination. However waning effects have not been observed consistently across age groups, virus subtypes and seasons.”
While “delaying vaccination might permit greater immunity later in the season,” the CDC explains, pointing to evidence from a 2013 study, that “deferral could result in missed opportunities to vaccinate.”
The “data are very mixed” on how long your immunity will last after getting the shot, John J. Treanor, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at the University of Rochester medical school, told NPR. “Some studies suggest vaccines lose some protectiveness during the course of a single flu season,” he said. “Flu activity generally starts in the fall, but peaks in January or February and can run into the spring. So some might worry that if [they] got vaccinated very early and flu didn’t show up until very late, it might not work as well.”
But some studies show “you still have protection from the shot you got last year, if it’s a year when the strains didn’t change,” Treanor noted.
In short, many variables—like an individual’s immune system and the specific flu strains that end up circulating over the course of the season—affect how long the shot will last. But since the CDC states that “optimally, vaccination should occur before onset of influenza activity in the community,” sooner might be better.
How Effective Is the Flu Shot?
The flu shot’s overall effectiveness varies from year to year, according to the CDC. The protection you’ll get from the shot depends on your age and health, as well as the similarity or “match” between the viruses or virus in the vaccine and those that are circulating during the season.
However, recent effectiveness studies show that flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40 percent and 60 percent among the overall population during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to the shot.
The Bottom Line
Whether you get your shots now, before the end of October, or simply ASAP, getting vaccinated for the coming flu season will protect you and your kids against the strains that will circulate during the 2019-2020 flu season. Plus, as the CDC points out, it may also protect people around you, including those who are more vulnerable to serious flu illness. It’s a win-win.