Editor's note: This story was most recently updated Dec. 6, 2021.
When does flu season begin and end?
Although you can get the flu anytime, flu season starts in October and can go as late as May.
When is the best time to get a flu shot?
Shoot for September/October. Ideally, you should have it by the end of October. But even if you miss that window, the CDC recommends vaccination through November and beyond because flu cases typically peak in February and can continue into May.
Who should get a flu shot?
In general, everyone over 6 months of age should get a flu shot. Though rare, certain types of flu vaccines may be unsafe for women who are pregnant or people with certain chronic conditions or serious allergies to vaccine ingredients like gelatin and antibiotics. Ask your doctor if you’re unsure.
How well does the vaccine work?
The effectiveness can vary by year, but it typically lessens the risk of flu by between 40% to 60%. And if you do get sick, the vaccine also can help prevent the most serious symptoms as well as complications, hospitalization, and death.
Can I get the flu vaccine at the same time as the COVID-19 vaccine?
Yes. You can get both shots at the same time, including the COVID-19 booster shot. Children qualify for the COVID-19 vaccine once they reach 5 years of age. They can get both shots at the same time too.
Where do I get the flu vaccine?
It's offered at doctor offices, clinics, health departments, college health centers, pharmacies, and some schools, among other locations.
Many insurance plans pay for the annual vaccination, and older adults covered under Medicare Part B can get the vaccine free, with no copay or deductible.
To find a source for vaccines in your area, go to the Vaccine Finder (https://vaccine.healthmap.org).
What about the nasal spray flu vaccine?
The nasal spray vaccine, FluMist, is once again being recommended by the CDC for adults and children. In recent flu seasons, the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics had recommended flu shots only for kids because of questions about well the spray worked. But the manufacturer appears to have improved the spray, so the CDC and AAP say parents can go either way -- shots or spray.
How do experts decide what to put into the flu vaccine?
During flu season, experts study samples of the viruses circulating to find out how well the vaccine protected against those viruses. They use that information to help make their decision for the next one.
In general, vaccines work better against influenza B and influenza A (H1N1) viruses than they do against influenza A (H3N2) viruses.
Who gets hit the hardest by the flu?
Children, older adults, pregnant women, anyone with a chronic medical condition, and health care workers are especially vulnerable to getting the flu or to having complications such as pneumonia, bronchitis, and sinus and ear infections.
Children younger than 2 are especially vulnerable. Those ages 6 months and under are also much more likely to get complications, but they're too young to be vaccinated, so the best idea is to be sure everyone in contact with them is vaccinated.
Adults ages 65 years and above are at greater risk than younger, healthy adults due to weakened immune systems. Typically, these older adults account for most flu-related deaths and more than half of flu-related hospitalizations.
Pregnant women, as well as those who have delivered a baby in the previous 2 weeks, are more likely to have a severe illness than women who aren't pregnant.
Anyone with a chronic medical condition is more likely to have complications. These conditions include:
- Heart disease
- A compromised immune system due to cancer, HIV, or other conditions
Is one type of vaccine better than another?
The CDC doesn’t recommend any one vaccine over another for the 2021-2022 flu season. But some vaccines may only be approved for certain age groups. If you’re unsure, ask your doctor which is best for you.
What types of flu shots are available this year?
For the 2020-2021 season, there are several vaccines:
- Standard dose flu shots usually given with a needle
- High-dose shots for people 65 and older
- Shots made with adjuvant, added ingredients to help trigger a stronger immune response for people 65 and older.
- Shots made with a virus grown in cell culture, not eggs. They can be taken by people with allergies.
- Shots made using a different technology that does not require the use of the flu virus
- Nasal spray vaccine made with a live virus. Approved for ages 2 to 49, it is not for pregnant women and people with weakened immunity, among other conditions.
Children who have never been vaccinated against the flu will need two doses, spaced at least 4 weeks apart.
How long does it take for the flu shot to become effective?
It takes about 10 days to 2 weeks for the vaccine to reach its top strength.
What are common symptoms of the flu?
They usually come more suddenly than cold symptoms. They include fever, feeling feverish, the chills, and having a cough, sore throat, runny nose, muscle or body aches, headache, and fatigue. Less common are vomiting and diarrhea. Children are more likely to have vomiting and diarrhea than adults are.
Not everyone with the flu has a fever.
What should I do if I think I am getting the flu?
Stay home, rest, and avoid contact with others except to get medical care if needed, experts say. Avoid contact with others for at least 24 hours after the fever subsides to avoid spreading the flu.
Be on the lookout for emergency warning signs that you may be getting serious flu-related complications.
In children, these include:
- Fast or troubled breathing
- Bluish skin color
- Severe crankiness
- Fever plus a rash
- Lack of interaction
- Not drinking fluids
- Symptoms that improve then return with fever and a worse cough
In adults, they include:
- Breathing trouble
- Pain or pressure in the chest or belly
- Dizziness or confusion
- Severe or persistent vomiting
- Symptoms that improve but then return with a fever and worsening cough.
What are the treatments for the flu?
There are 4 FDA-approved antiviral drugs recommended to treat flu for the 2021-2022 season:
- Baloxavir marboxil (Xofluza)
- Oseltamivir (generic or Tamiflu)
- Peramivir (Rapivab)
- Zanamivir (Relenza)
Antiviral drugs can lessen your symptoms and shorten sick time by 1 or 2 days, according to the CDC. These are prescription medicines in various forms, such as pills, liquids, an inhaled powder, and an IV solution. Ask your doctor if they are right for you.
They may also have side effects. Tamiflu may cause nausea and vomiting, and it may make headaches and psychiatric effects more likely. And in a recent study, it didn’t lessen complications.
It's important to start the drugs early, as studies show they work best when started within 2 days of getting sick. But your doctor may decide they can still be helpful if started later than that.
Besides getting vaccinated, what else can help lower the chance of getting the of flu?
Everyday preventive actions are important. Avoid people who are ill, and practice good hygiene such as washing your hands often and covering your cough. If you are sick, stay home.
What is the latest news on the flu season?
The CDC updates flu activity on a weekly basis. While numbers were low the first week of November 2021, data showed an increase in activity over the previous weeks.
The CDC also monitors with a map of the activity to help you monitor case numbers near you.