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September 22, 2022

Flu Season May Be Severe—It’s Time to Get Your Shot

Flu Season May Be Severe—It’s Time to Get Your Shot

While all eyes were on COVID over the past few years, flu was off the radar for many people. But flu season is back, and some experts believe we need to brace for a bad one.

Australia just had its worst flu season in five years. Case rates were three times higher than average, peaking about two months earlier than usual. Why does this matter for the United States? Flu season in the Southern Hemisphere starts in April and lasts until September, while it spans October to May in the Northern Hemisphere. So, flu season in Australia is ending just as it’s about to begin in the United States.

U.S. health officials monitor what happens in the southern hemisphere to help predict what’s in store for the northern hemisphere. In other words, if Australia just had a bad flu season, chances are we’re next.

The best way to protect yourself: Get a flu shot.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that nearly everyone aged 6-months or older receive a flu vaccine each year.

September and October are the best months for a flu shot. Ideally, everyone should be vaccinated by the end of October. That goes for children, too. Kids 6-months or older are eligible.

If you need a COVID shot (whether it’s your first, second or the updated booster), the CDC says you can get it at the same time as your flu shot. That means you don’t have to choose between protecting yourself from COVID or the flu.

Last flu season was mild
In 2020 and 2021, as the cold months approached, health officials worried a bad flu season could compound the nation’s COVID pandemic. Some warned that a “twindemic” could further strain health care resources.

Thankfully, that didn’t happen. The nation saw mild flu seasons for the past two years. The same measures that protect people from COVID—masking, distancing, working at home—likely helped ward off the flu.

But now that most COVID protection policies are no longer in effect, flu may well make a comeback. 

Why we might have a bad flu season this year
Australia’s doozy of a flu season isn’t the only hint of what’s to come. Some researchers are predicting a severe flu season because, overall, flu immunity might be lower than usual since so few people caught it for the past two years.

Flu may not seem scary, but it can be deadly. The CDC estimates that since 2010, influenza has resulted in between 9 million and 41 million illnesses, between 140,000 and 710,000 hospitalizations and between 12,000 and 52,000 deaths each year.

Getting a flu shot can help save lives. Don’t be deterred by the fact that the flu vaccine isn’t a perfect shield (its average efficacy is about 40 percent to 60 percent).

The percentage of people who get the vaccine is far more important to public health than its efficacy. For example, a flu vaccine that’s only 20 percent effective could still save nearly 62,000 lives if 43 percent of the population got one, a 2018 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found. Boost that vaccination rate to 50 percent of the population, and nearly 8,500 additional flu deaths are avoided.

Timing your flu shot and COVID vaccine
Whether you’ve already been immunized against COVID and are eligible for a booster, or you’re ready for your first dose, the CDC advises that you can get a flu shot at any time—even on the same day.

There is now abundant research on the safety of the COVID vaccine. And in addition to what we already know about how flu vaccine behaves when given with a variety of other vaccines, the CDC is confident that giving COVID shots at the same time as other vaccines is both safe and effective.

The CDC also says that side effects are about the same whether a vaccine is given alone or at the same time as other vaccines. (Children and people about to travel abroad, for example, routinely get multiple vaccines on the same visit without incident.) Some data from other studies of flu vaccination along with other vaccine types have suggested higher rates of adverse reactions when the flu vaccine is given with others, but these reactions have been mostly mild to moderate.

One caveat: some flu vaccine types are likely to trigger a stronger immune response that could lead to, say, a sore and tender muscle. The CDC advises providers who are simultaneously giving COVID shots and other shots that are more prone to lead to that kind of localized reaction to inject them on different arms. (If given on the same arm, the two injections should be spaced at least one inch apart.)

Bottom line? For most people, it’s safe to get immunized against both the flu and COVID at the same time—and it’s wise not to wait. It’s the best way to protect yourself and others from infection in the coming months.