Here's a sentence you'll be hearing a lot over the next several months: Get your flu shot. Experts, including top docs such as Anthony Fauci, MD, can’t emphasize it enough. Influenza immunizations can help us avoid a “twindemic”. They're critical. But many people are wondering when is the best time to get a flu shot. If you get it too early, will the effects "wear off" before the end of flu season?
We have answers. But first, a quick explainer about why flu shots are so critical: "Getting the shot prevents influenza infection, which reduces the burden on our healthcare system and keeps your immune system protected from the flu,” explains Nate Favini, MD, the medical lead of Forward, a preventive primary care practice. “It also contributes to what’s called ‘herd immunity,’ which reduces transmission of the flu through the population and protects children, older adults and people with medical conditions from the flu.”
In short: It reduces your chances of getting sick. It protects vulnerable populations from getting sick. And it reduces the likelihood that hospitals and health centers will become overburdened again, as flu season and the pandemic converge. Sounds like a win-win-win situation, right?
Right. So, now that you've committed to getting your flu shot, here's everything you need to know about when to do it.
What’s the best time to get a flu shot?
Late October, explains Dr. Favini. Here's why: There’s some evidence that getting a flu shot too soon in the season — such as August or September — might leave you with waning immunity by January or February, he says. That can be a problem, because flu season typically lasts through March, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “This might be especially true for people over 65 who don’t tend to have as strong of an immune response to vaccines,” Dr. Favini says.
“On the other hand," he continues, "getting a shot early is dramatically better than not getting a shot at all. So while I tend to think that late October is the optimal time to get a flu shot, if you have a chance to do it sooner and might miss it later in the season, just go for it now.” After getting poked, it’ll take you about two weeks to build up immunity.
When did the flu vaccine for 2020 become available?
Manufacturers are rolling out the flu vaccine already, and doctors anticipate the full supply being in circulation by the third week of September, explains Charles Golden, DO, vice president and executive medical director, CHOC Children’s Primary Care Network. “Some places have the flu shot already, while others are still waiting on orders [from private manufacturers],” Dr. Favini adds.
Should you get your flu shot early?
That question is more complicated than you might think. It’s possible that tens of thousands of cases and hundreds of deaths related to the flu could be avoided if older adults waited until October to face the needle, according to a 2019 analysis in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Dr. Favini echoes this, and says the optimal time to go in is in October to ensure that the flu vaccine lasts through the winter.
But in 2020, the shot may not be as accessible. There should be enough vaccines to go around — manufacturers produced 20 million more doses in 2020 than they did in 2019, because they’re anticipating higher demand due to the pandemic — but many folks got their shots for free at school or at work last year. This year, so many people are working from home or unemployed, taking away that option. Instead, they'll have to go out of their way to get it at pharmacies and doctor’s offices, potentially increasing their contact with others. Because of these barriers, some health experts are just encouraging people to just get the shot ASAP.
When is too late to get a flu shot?
Flu season typically ends in March, so there’s limited utility in getting shot in the spring. But, in this case, late is better than never. As long as strains of the flu (there are multiple, and the big ones are Influenza A and B) are still circulating, you can get a shot. “It’s only too late when the seasonal supply of flu vaccine is exhausted,” Golden says. “We typically recommend the flu vaccine for anyone who hasn’t had one in that season, even as late as April or May. Some protection is better than none.”
Still, the most protection from the flu shot will be gained if people get vaccinated before the virus peaks in local circulation, which is expected to occur in December and January of this year, Golden explains.
What time of day should you get a flu shot?
The body may have a stronger immune response when the vaccine is given in the morning, according to a study published in the journal, Vaccine. “That might translate to better immunity against the flu,” Dr. Favini says. So sure, consider getting a shot before work — but honestly, there's not enough evidence to prove this is true, or that the effect is particularly profound. So, if after work is more convenient for you, that's fine. The important thing is to just get the shot. “The best time is whatever time is convenient and available for you and your provider,” Golden emphasizes.
What are the side effects of getting a flu shot?
Despite arguments to the contrary, science says you cannot get an influenza infection from the flu shot, Golden assures. “There has been extensive research supporting the safety of flu vaccines, and hundreds of millions of Americans have received the vaccine,” Dr. Favini adds. But side effects can include soreness, redness, swelling, headache, fever, nausea, and muscle aches. These side effects are typically mild and will go away in a couple days, he says.
Could we run out of flu shots this year?
Yes, the push for getting a shot has been ramped up perhaps more this year than any other. But the flu shot likely won’t become the new Clorox wipe (i.e., it won't run out and be out of stock for months). We’ll have enough in supply. “Manufacturers have ramped up production and the CDC anticipates that we’ll have enough vaccines to immunize 60% of the population here in the US,” Dr. Favini says. “Only 45% of people get vaccinated in a typical year so I suspect we’ll have enough. There’s no need to panic.”
It's true that last year, some local pharmacies reportedly ran out of shots in mid-October, but it wasn't an issue of a "shortage," but of shipping delays between manufacturers and small, local pharmacies, as ABC57 in South Bend, Indiana, reported at the time. If this is a concern in your area, the best thing to do is call ahead before you show up to make sure they currently have some shots in stock. You can also call your local health department to find out where to get a shot.
So when and why should I get the flu shot in 2020?
We'd be happy to say it a million times: Get your flu shot between now and late October. If you miss that window, get it anyway. And after you get it, keep doing all the things you've been doing to stay safe from COVID-19: social distancing, wearing a mask, washing your hands. “The more people that get vaccinated, the more we help protect more vulnerable people like babies who can’t get the flu shot and seniors who are more likely to become very ill with the flu,” Dr. Favini says. “Your shot can save the life of someone you know.”