It’s not too late to get a flu shot.
Even though the flu season usually begins about now, the vaccine will protect you within about two weeks. The season typically peaks in January or February and runs through May.
The flu hospitalized and killed more Americans last winter than any seasonal influenza in decades. More than 900,000 people landed in the hospital, double the number of many seasons.
More than 80,000 people died, far exceeding the previous high of 56,000 for a flu season during the past 30 years.
The hospitalizations and deaths were mainly among people 65 and older. As people age, their immune system typically weakens and their ability to ward off diseases declines. Moreover, the flu virus can cause complications for those already struggling with chronic health problems.
Last year’s heavy toll underscores the importance of getting a flu vaccine as soon as possible. The shot can prevent infections and reduce the severity of complications from the disease.
If you’re enrolled in Medicare Part B, your flu shot won’t cost you anything, as long as your doctor, health clinic or pharmacy agrees not to charge you more than Medicare pays. There’s no deductible or co-payment.
If you were vaccinated last year, you’ll still need another shot this year, since your immunity to flu viruses wanes after a year. Also, the types of viruses usually change from season to season, so new vaccines are made each year to fight what scientists believe will be the season’s most common strains.
You have many flu shot options. Besides the traditional flu vaccines that help protect against three strains of the virus, there are now “quadrivalent” vaccines that help protect against four strains. There’s also a high-dose vaccine approved for people 65 and older.
If you have any questions about which is best for you, talk to your doctor or other health care professional.
Despite the risk that flu and its complications pose, the vaccination rate remains much lower than it should be. Even during last year’s horrible season, less than half of the U.S. population was vaccinated.
Why? Some people don’t understand that the flu can be serious and life-threatening, so they don’t think a flu shot is worth their time and effort. Others resist annual vaccination because they believe it’s risky, even though decades of experience have shown flu shots to be safe.
If you’re concerned about a serious allergic reaction or some other medical condition that may make the flu vaccine unsafe for you, you should consult your doctor before a vaccination. Otherwise, it’s important to remember that you can’t get the flu from the flu shot.
Side effects are rare. Most people notice nothing after their vaccination. A few may have a slight fever or some soreness where the shot was given. But those side effects usually last just a day or two.
As flu season begins, you’ll want to wash your hands and stay away from sick people to reduce the spread of germs. But as useful as those steps are, an annual vaccination remains the best way to protect yourself and those around you.
By avoiding the flu, you’ll avoid giving it to family and friends.
Bob Moos is Southwest public affairs officer for the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.