When, Where, and Why You Should Get the Flu Shot
With COVID-19 dominating the headlines over the past few years, influenza (also known as the flu) has gone out of focus. But we can’t forget about the flu. Influenza can have serious complications such as hospitalization and death.
Let’s rewind before looking ahead. In 2020, we had 1,196 flu cases, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services, which is an unusually low number. It’s not surprising because mitigation measures that work for COVID-19 are also highly effective against influenza. However, last year, we had an unseasonably late flu season. Overall, we had 18,402 flu cases in the 2021-2022 season.
Fall is here, which means lots of gatherings, including football games, fall break travel, and holiday get-togethers. We want to make sure you and your family stay safe and healthy during the upcoming season. So, we turned to Dr. Cara Christ, our Chief Medical Officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona, to answer your top questions as she encourages everyone to roll up their sleeves and get the influenza vaccine.
Q: When does flu season begin?
A: Flu season officially starts in the United States in October each year, with Arizona’s highest peak of cases usually occurring between January and March. Last season, we saw an increase in cases in late December, but then we saw a downward trend until May when cases peaked again to levels we generally only see in January and February. This trend was similar to what happened across the country. Influenza is unpredictable, so it is difficult to know why we saw the late peak in cases.
Q: What is the best prevention and protection we have against influenza?
A: The best prevention we have is the flu vaccine and taking personal precautions, such as washing your hands, covering your cough, and staying home when you are sick.
Q: Should everyone get the vaccine?
A: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone over the age of 6 months get vaccinated every year.
Q: When is the best time to get the flu shot?
A: I recommend getting your influenza shot as soon as it is available to you. Influenza season is unpredictable, but we generally start to see cases reported in October. It takes about two weeks to build immunity after you’ve gotten your shot, so getting it early in the season (before the end of October) is a good idea. The vaccine is already available in the community.
Q: Can you get the COVID-19 booster shot and flu shot on the same day?
A: At the beginning of the COVID-19 vaccination period in January of 2021, the recommendation was that you should wait between the two. That has changed. Now you can get the COVID vaccine with other vaccines. We want to make it as easy as possible for people to be protected. So, if you're going to the doctor for the flu vaccine and they also have the COVID vaccine, you should get both.
Q: What are the side effects of the flu shot? Also, are the side effects different and/or more intense if you get the COVID-19 booster on the same day?
A: Side effects from the influenza vaccine are different for everyone. Some people don’t have any side effects, while others have a sore arm for a day or two. Other side effects can include a headache, muscle aches, or fatigue. If you get the nasal spray, you may experience a mild runny nose for a short time.
Getting the updated COVID-19 booster the same day as your influenza shot isn’t likely to make your side effects different or more intense than you would otherwise have experienced if you got the shots at different times.
Q: How effective is the flu vaccine and how long does protection last?
A: Flu vaccine effectiveness varies each season and depends on the age and health conditions of the person being vaccinated. Before each influenza season starts, scientists study data and the influenza season in the Southern Hemisphere to recommend the influenza vaccine composition they think will work best in the U.S. during our influenza season. Like COVID, the influenza virus can change over time, which can impact how effective – or how good of a match – the season’s vaccine is.
The protection you get from the influenza vaccine can last for several months, although your immunity from the vaccine will decline over time. In addition, there have been a couple of updates to this season’s vaccine based on circulating strains. That’s why it’s important to get vaccinated every year.
Q: Are we expecting a flu surge this winter in Arizona coupled with a COVID-19 surge?
A: Flu is predictably unpredictable. Some years we see large increases in cases, and other years we see a much smaller number of cases. The 2020-2021 influenza season had fewer cases than any season in recent history, likely due to the additional precautions people were taking against COVID-19, which also protect you from flu. Based on what we’ve seen in the Southern Hemisphere this year, we’re expecting an increase in influenza activity this season compared to the past few seasons. It’s possible we will also see an uptick in COVID activity during this same time. That’s why it’s so critical for everyone to get their influenza shot AND their updated COVID booster as soon as they can.
Q: Are there groups of people more susceptible to severe flu than others?
A: Yes. While influenza can cause severe infection in anyone, some people are more susceptible to bad flu outcomes. People at higher risk of developing complications from flu include pregnant women, children younger than two years old, people 65 years old and older, people with a compromised immune system, and people with certain chronic conditions including asthma, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and neurologic conditions. A full list of those at high risk for flu complications is here.
Q: What is the high-dose flu vaccine and who should get it?
A: The high-dose influenza vaccine is a special formulation of the vaccine recommended for those who are 65 and older. This helps people create a stronger immune response, which is important in older adults who may not experience as high of an immune response as those under age 65.
Q: Does the flu shot come with costs and does insurance cover it?
A: Flu shots are considered a preventative service and are covered under most insurance plans including Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona plans. There are also numerous no-cost clinics throughout Arizona.
Q: Where can you get a flu shot in Arizona?
A: You can find a convenient influenza vaccination site near you by visiting: Vaccines.gov - Search for flu vaccine locations
Q: What are some flu symptoms and how do they differ from COVID-19 symptoms?
A: Influenza and COVID symptoms can be very similar and include fever, cough, difficulty breathing, fatigue, sore throat, muscle aches, runny nose, and headache. Getting tested is the best way to know whether you are sick with influenza or COVID, and to get the appropriate treatment if one is recommended by your provider.