Need Flu Shot? It's Not Too Late

Flu Season Usually Doesn't Peak Until February

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on November 22, 2006
From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 22, 2006 -- If you didn't get your flu shot before Thanksgiving, you're not a turkey. A shot in December -- or even later -- protects you and others.

Most years, flu season doesn't peak until February; and higher-than-usual flu rates may continue into May.

A flu shot starts protecting in just two weeks (six weeks for kids getting their first flu shots). Do the math, and you'll find there's plenty of time for your flu shot to pay off.

That's why the CDC and a long list of medical associations are sponsoring National Influenza Vaccination Week from Nov. 27 to Dec. 3. One organizer of the effort is Jeanne Santoli, MD, deputy director of immunization services at the CDC.

"We want to emphasize the need to continue vaccination activities through December, into January, and beyond," Santoli tells WebMD.

"Getting vaccinated as early as possible is a very good strategy," she says. "But given that flu tends to peak later in the winter, there is still time to get vaccinated well after Thanksgiving."

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Adults need just one shot for yearlong protection.

Children under age 9 who have never had a flu vaccination will need two shots, given at least four weeks apart. Just one shot won't work for these kids.

And to be on the safe side, the American Academy of Pediatrics says kids who missed their second shot that first year should get both shots the next.

Flu Shot? Who? You.

Americans broke all previous records this year for getting flu shots.

Already, 83.5 million doses have been distributed -- and manufacturers tell the CDC they've got a lot more in store.

"Projections for this season are 110 million to 115 million total flu vaccine doses," Santoli says. "That is about 30 million more doses than have ever been distributed in the U.S."

That sounds like a lot. But the CDC recommends flu shots for 218 million of America's 300 million people.

Many of these are people particularly vulnerable to flu -- the ones most likely to be among the 36,000 Americans who each year die of flu or the 200,000 Americans hospitalized with the disease.

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Also, anyone who lives with, cares for, or has frequent contact with flu-vulnerable people might give these people the flu -- so they, too, need a flu shot.

Those at high risk for flu complications are:

  • Children age 6 months to 5 years
  • Pregnant women
  • People age 50 and older
  • People of any age with chronic medical conditions
  • People living in nursing homes or other long-term facilities

One particularly important group to vaccinate is those in frequent contact with an infant under 6 months old, says Henry Bernstein, MD, spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics, and professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School.

"A child under 6 months old is vulnerable to influenza, but is not eligible for vaccination," Bernstein tells WebMD. "So in all households with a child under 6 months, all siblings, and parents, and grandparents, and caretakers should get immunized to protect that child."

Bernstein also advises flu shots for older kids -- not so much to protect them as to protect older adults they're likely to infect if they get the flu.

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The bottom line: Just about everyone should get a flu shot; or a flu sniff, since there's now a nasal flu vaccine for healthy people age 5 to 49 who are not pregnant.

"There is no question that the flu vaccine is the best way to go for preventing influenza," Bernstein says. "Everyone should get it -- and should encourage their friends and family to get it as well."

Common Flu Vaccine Myths

Why don't more people get flu shots?

Last September, the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases sponsored a survey of a nationally representative sample of 1,014 American adults.

The poll found that:

  • 43% of Americans don't know flu is a serious illness.
  • 37% of Americans don't worry about getting the flu.
  • 26% of Americans aren't worried about giving the flu to friends, family, or co-workers.
  • 23% of Americans think they still got influenza even after being immunized.
  • 46% of Americans think -- wrongly -- that you can get the flu from a flu vaccine.
  • Fewer than half of Americans know that pregnant women are at high risk for flu complications.

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Such statistics worry the CDC's Santoli.

She admits that some years the flu vaccine -- which has to be made a year in advance -- doesn't perfectly match the flu strains circulating that year. But most years, the vaccine is right on target, she says.

"For healthy adults under 65, the vaccine is 70% to 90% effective in preventing flu when there is a good match," Santoli says. "Over age 65, the efficacy is somewhat less. That's one reason why it's important for their children and grandchildren to get vaccinated."

Santoli has a theory about why so many people think they got the flu from flu vaccine -- even though that is medically impossible.

"There are lots of viruses that circulate in the winter -- and they cause similar symptoms to flu, although usually not as severe," she says.

"Or maybe you get the flu during the two weeks it takes for the vaccine to take effect. So if you get another kind of virus or the flu in the days just before or the days just after vaccination, you can get the flu despite being vaccinated, not because of it," she explains.

Get It While It's Hot

Santoli and Bernstein urge everyone to get vaccinated as soon as possible -- but if not now, in December, in January, in February, or as long as supplies last. With 77 million of a record 115 million doses already out there, in a nation of 300 million there are still more people who need flu vaccine than available vaccine doses.

So if you won't do yourself a favor, do it for your family, your friends, your co-workers, and your fellow citizens.

Get the flu vaccine as soon as you can. The possibility of a sore arm and low, short-lived fever are the main risks. The benefit? It's very likely you could save someone else's life.

WebMD Health News

Sources

SOURCES: News releases: National Influenza Vaccine Summit, CDC, National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, American Academy of Family Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Physicians, American Lung Association, American Medical Association, American Public Health Association, and the National Association of County & City Health Officials. CDC web site. NFID web site. AAP web site. AMA web site. Jeanne Santoli, MD, deputy director, immunization services division, CDC. Henry Bernstein, MD, spokesman and member of committee on infectious diseases, American Academy of Pediatrics; professor of pediatrics, Dartmouth Medical School, Lebanon, N.H.

© 2006 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

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