Dear Doctors: I’ve been reading that it’s a pretty bad flu season this year, and I’m starting to get worried about getting sick. I haven’t gotten a flu shot yet, but I think it might be too late. Is it still worthwhile to get the vaccine? Is this year’s vaccine effective?
Dear Reader: Thank you for bringing up an important topic. This has indeed been a very active flu season so far. It began in October, which is an earlier start than usual, and it is logging high infection and hospitalization rates.
According to the latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United States has seen at least 13 million cases of influenza thus far this season, with at least 120,000 hospitalizations and more than 7,300 deaths. These are estimates, and epidemiologists expect the final tallies to be even higher.
This brings us to your question about whether it’s too late to get the flu vaccine. The answer is a resounding no, it is not too late. To avoid any possible confusion, we’ll flip the sentence into positive territory: Yes, you should absolutely get the flu vaccine, and as soon as possible.
Being vaccinated significantly lowers the chances of becoming infected with the influenza virus. Recent studies show that flu vaccination reduces the risk of infection by between 40% and 60%. The vaccine also helps to lessen the severity of illness if you should get sick. This includes a lower risk of developing the range of potentially dangerous complications that can come with the flu, such as ear infections, bronchitis and pneumonia.
Because different strains of influenza circulate at different rates each year, the makeup of the annual flu shot changes. This is based on epidemiological data, including which flu viruses are making people sick in the run-up to the upcoming flu season, and the rate at which they are spreading.
But viruses are complex, and their behavior is not always predictable. That’s why the efficacy of the flu vaccine can vary from season to season. This year, we’re happy to report that the flu vaccine is a very good match for the strains that are circulating in the U.S. That translates into robust protection from infection and from severe illness.
It’s important to note that, while we talk about “the” flu vaccine, it is actually available in several variations. Different vaccines are specially formulated for infants and children, adults, older adults, pregnant women and people with certain chronic health conditions. Everyone should get the flu vaccine that is appropriate for their age and their specific health status. Let the health care provider who is giving you the vaccine know if you fall into a special category, or if you suspect that you may.
Flu season in the U.S. typically lasts until late spring, which is more than four months away. Going that long without the added protection that a flu shot offers is taking a medical risk. Please, get the shot.
(Send your questions to [email protected], or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10960 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1955, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)