Although the flu season lasts from October until May, with most cases occurring between late December and early March, the flu vaccine is usually offered between September and mid-November. Getting the shot before the flu season is in full force gives the body a chance to build up immunity to, or protection from, the virus.
Even though it's ideal to get vaccinated early, the flu shot can still be helpful later. Even as late as January, there are still 2 or 3 months left in the flu season, so it's still a good idea to get protected.
Who Should Get the Flu Shot?
Federal health officials now recommend flu vaccinations for everyone 6 months of age and older (instead of just certain groups, as was recommended before). It's still especially important that certain groups of people get vaccinated. These groups, which should get priority during times of shortage, are:
- people at higher risk for developing serious complications from the flu
- people who live with or care for the people at high risk
High-risk groups include:
- all kids 6 months through 4 years old
- anyone 50 years and older
- anyone with a weakened immune system
- women who will be pregnant during the flu season
- anyone who lives or works with children under 5 or adults aged 50 or older
- residents of long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes
- any adult or child with chronic medical conditions, such as asthma
- health care personnel who have direct contact with patients
- out-of-home caregivers and household contacts of anyone in any of the high-risk groups
Ideally, kids and adults should be immunized in October so they're adequately protected before flu season hits. Kids under 9 who get a flu shot for the first time will receive it in two separate shots a month apart. It can take 1 to 2 weeks for the flu shot to become effective, so it's best to get vaccinated as soon as possible if your doctor thinks it's necessary.
Those Who Should Not Get a Flu Shot
Those who should not get a flu shot include:
- infants under 6 months old
- anyone who's severely allergic to eggs and egg products. People with a mild egg allergy can receive the vaccine, but it should be given in a doctor's office so that they can be monitored for side effects for 30 minutes after the shot is given.
- anyone who's ever had a severe reaction to a flu vaccination
- anyone with Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), a rare medical condition that affects the immune system and nerves
- anyone with a fever
A non-shot option, the nasal mist vaccine, is now available, but because it contains weakened live flu viruses it is not for people with weakened immune systems or certain health conditions. The nasal mist vaccine is only for healthy, non-pregnant people between the ages of 2 and 49 years. Check with your doctor to see if your child can — or should — get this type of flu vaccine.
Are There Side Effects?
Most people do not experience any side effects from the flu shot. Some have soreness or swelling at the site of the shot or mild side effects, such as headache or low-grade fever.
Some people who get the nasal spray vaccine also may develop mild flu-like symptoms, including runny nose, headache, vomiting, muscle aches, and fever.
Where Can My Family Get Flu Shots?
Flu shots are available at:
- many health care settings, including doctors' offices and public, employee, and university health clinics
- some pharmacies
- some supermarkets
- some community groups
If you have an HMO insurance plan, be sure to check with your primary care doctor before having your kids vaccinated outside the office, since most HMOs will pay for shots only if they're given through their plan.
Flu shots are covered by Medicare for senior citizens and are generally covered by insurance for people in other high-risk groups. Otherwise, flu shots may cost anywhere from $10 to $50. If you opt for the nasal mist flu vaccine, check to see if your insurance plan covers it.
Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: November 2011
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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