With Labor Day officially in the rearview mirror and the return of the school year underway, Americans will soon have to grapple with the annual public health ritual of prepping for the flu season.
Fall doesn’t technically start for another two and a half weeks. But that doesn’t mean it’s too early to start thinking about the 2018 flu season—including important questions like when you and your family should get your flu shot, how long the season is expected to last, and other critical information—especially after the brutal flu outbreak of 2017-2018. Here’s what you need to know.
Can you get the flu in September?
The question of whether or not you can get the flu in September is one of the most frequently asked ones about the virus. Simply put: Yes. The more accurate answer: Yes, but it is highly unlikely.
The summer isn’t a ripe time for most influenza strains because, researchers posit, the cold and dry weather conditions of the fall and winter make it easier for flu viruses to thrive (dryness and low humidity may actually also make it easier for the flu to attack the lungs). That’s not to say it never happens—but usually, people who present flu-like symptoms in the late summer or beginning of September (such as fever, body aches, a cough, congestion, diarrhea, etc.) actually have some other kind of virus such as the one that causes gastroenteritis (which is commonly, and misleadingly, referred to as the stomach flu).
So how long is the flu season?
The more commonly accepted timeline of the flu season, when people are usually hospitalized for flu and flu-like illnesses, lasts between October and late April/early May. Peak flu season most commonly occurs between December and February, with February typically presenting the highest number of cases, according to CDC data. That trend will likely hold true for the 2018 season, too.
When should you get a flu shot?
Given those realities, just when should you get a flu shot? Public health officials say that everyone 6 months of age or older should ideally receive a flu vaccine by the end of October—and it may be best to get a flu shot even earlier than that if possible, since most flu vaccines take about two weeks to offer maximum protection and it’s possible to contract influenza before or during that time period.
The CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics both recommend that all adults and children (other than those who have flu shot allergies or other medical conditions that prevent them from getting vaccinated) receive their shots by the end of October 2018.
Even if you fail to get a flu shot by then, experts say it’s never too late to get one at any point during the flu season, and no matter how effective (or not) a particular batch of flu vaccine may prove—some protection is still better than none, and getting vaccinated is just as important for protecting the elderly, children, and people with compromised immune systems as it is for protecting yourself.
Certain individuals, including older people, are urged to get high-dose flu shots that may offer more powerful immunity, and it’s always a good idea to check in with your doctor about what course of action to take if you have any questions.
Are flu shots available yet?
Flu shots will become available at nearly all pharmacy chains over the course of September, including at popular retailers such as Walgreens and CVS, and are commonly free if you have health coverage. Even without insurance, a flu shot may cost as little as $20 or up to $70 depending on the variety of vaccine and where you’re getting it. You should check in with your local pharmacy to see whether or not they’ve begun offering the 2018 flu vaccine yet.
As for how effective this year’s flu shot will be? That’s a trickier question since vaccine manufacturers essentially have to guess which strains will be going around in a given year. Flu vaccine effectiveness typically fluctuates between 40% and 60%; we’ll know more about how manufacturers did by February.
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