The flu season is about to rev up in the United States and is a serious public health challenge. From 2010 to 2020, between 12,000 and 52,000 people in the United States die of flu annually. Many of these deaths could have been prevented by flu vaccines, but many Americans fail to get them even though they know they should.
According to a National Foundation for Infectious Diseases survey, 69 percent of adults in the United States agree that annual influenza vaccination is the best preventive measure against flu-related deaths and hospitalizations. Yet, only 49 percent planned to get an influenza vaccine during the 2022–2023 flu season. That percentage is likely to be even lower this year, given COVID fatigue and the barrage of anti-vaccine propaganda circulating on social media and certain news channels.
Of those who said they would forgo vaccination, about 40 percent either didn't think flu vaccines work very well or had concerns over the side effects. In addition, 28 percent said they never get the flu, 24 percent are concerned about getting the flu from the vaccine, and 20 percent don't think it is a serious illness.
Here are a few pertinent facts for the doubters.
—The vaccine won't give you the flu.
The active ingredient in the flu shot is made of pieces of the virus. Although the nasal spray vaccine contains a whole virus, it's a weakened form, so neither kind can actually give you the flu. Although you might have a low-grade fever or feel a little fatigued for a couple of days after the vaccine, that's the immune system responding to the vaccine and doing its job.
—This year's vaccines seem like a good match for circulating flu viruses.
Mid-season data from the Southern Hemisphere (where the fall-winter flu season precedes that in the Northern Hemisphere) suggest the current season's flu vaccines protect quite well against the most serious outcomes, according to a September 15 report by CDC researchers. They concluded that the 2023 Southern Hemisphere seasonal flu vaccines reduced the risk for flu-associated hospitalizations by 52 percent, which is in the usual range for flu vaccines of 40 percent to 60 percent.
— Any time during the flu season is a good time for the vaccine.
The flu season generally runs from September to February or March. Because the efficacy of the vaccines starts to wane gradually a couple of months after administration, late September or October is generally optimal to get the vaccine, but any time during the flu season affords some protection.
—Hate shots? There are nasal sprays, too.
The sprays, typically about as effective as the shots, are approved only for people ages 2 through 49. If you'd prefer that option, discuss it with your doctor.
—Everyone should get a flu vaccine, especially seniors.
Seniors are especially at risk for serious illness, hospitalization and death from flu. Therefore, it is vital for them to be vaccinated, and because as we age, we don't mount as robust an immune response, some "higher potency" vaccine options available for seniors. If you're a senior, remind the person administering the shot that you're eligible.
—You can get the flu and COVID vaccines at the same visit.
The newly updated COVID-19 vaccine, designed to better match the SARS-CoV-2 virus subvariants that are now circulating, is now available for patients 6 months or older. Co-administration of flu and updated COVID-19 vaccines (via separate shots) is permitted at the same visit to a healthcare provider.
Vaccines are some of modern medicine's greatest miracles. Take advantage of them.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Glenn Swogger Distinguished Fellow at the American Council on Science and Health. He was previously the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology.