Influenza — what most of us call "the flu" — is a contagious viral infection of the nose, throat, and lungs. It can make a person feel very sick.
When Should People Get the Flu Vaccine?
Flu viruses usually cause the most illness during the colder months of the year. In the United States, flu season is from October to May.
It's best to get the flu vaccine early in flu season, ideally by the end of October. This gives the body a chance to make antibodies that protect it from the flu. But getting a flu vaccine later in the season is better than not getting it at all. Getting a missed flu vaccine late in the season is especially important for people who travel. That's because the flu can be active around the globe from April to September.
Understanding the Flu Vaccine
Get the facts about the flu vaccine and how it can help keep your family healthy each year
Who Should Get the Flu Vaccine?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a flu vaccine for everyone 6 months of age and older.
Babies younger than 6 months can't get the vaccine. But if their parents, other caregivers, and older kids in the household get it, that will help protect the baby. This is important because infants are more at risk for serious problems from the flu.
How Is the Flu Vaccine Given?
Kids younger than 9 years old who get the flu vaccine for the first time or who've had only 1 dose of the vaccine before July 2021 will get 2 doses at least 1 month apart.
Kids younger than 9 who got at least 2 doses of flu vaccine before July 2021 will only need 1 dose.
Kids older than 9 need only 1 dose of the vaccine.
Two types of flu vaccine are available for the 2021–2022 flu season:
the flu shot, which is injected with a needle
the nasal spray, a mist that gets sprayed into the nostrils
Both protect against the four types of influenza virus that are causing disease this season.
In the past, the nasal spray vaccine wasn't recommended for kids because it didn't seem to work well enough. The newer version appears to work as well as the shot. So either vaccine can be given this year, depending on the child's age and general health.
The nasal spray is only for healthy people ages 2–49. People with weak immune systems or some health conditions (such as asthma) and pregnant women should not get the nasal spray vaccine. It should also be avoided in kids who take aspirin regularly, who have a cochlear implant, or who have recently taken antiviral medicine for the flu.
Why Is the Flu Vaccine Recommended?
While the flu vaccine isn't 100% effective, it still greatly lowers a person's chances of catching the flu, which can be very serious. It also can make symptoms less severe if someone who got the vaccine does still get the flu.
If you got the flu vaccine last year, it can't provide enough protection this year, because flu viruses change. That's why the vaccine is updated each year to include the most current types of the virus.
Sometimes the same virus types are included in the vaccine from one year to the next. Even then, it's still important to get the yearly flu vaccine because the body's immunity against the influenza virus declines over time.
Getting the flu vaccine not only protects you from the flu. It also helps protect the people and community around you. The flu vaccine makes someone less likely to get the flu, and therefore less likely to spread the flu. Getting the flu vaccine is a great way to protect people who are at risk from flu, such as the elderly, babies, and people with health conditions such as asthma. Every year thousands of people die from influenza, and getting the flu vaccine is one way to help prevent that.
What Are the Possible Side Effects of the Flu Vaccine?
Both types of vaccine can cause mild side effects.
The flu shot usually is given as an injection in the upper arm or thigh (depending on a person's age). It contains killed flu virus and can't cause someone to get the flu. But it can cause soreness, redness, or swelling at the injection site. Rarely, it might cause a low fever or body aches.
The nasal spray flu vaccine contains weakened live flu viruses. So it may cause mild symptoms, such as a runny nose, wheezing, sore throat, vomiting, or tiredness. Like the shot, it can sometimes cause a low fever or body aches.
Sometimes, people faint after getting a shot, especially teens. It helps to sit or lie down for 15 minutes right after a shot to prevent this.
If your child has any side effects, talk to your doctor about giving either acetaminophen or ibuprofen and to find out the right dose.
A warm, damp cloth or a heating pad on the injection site may help ease soreness, as can moving or using the arm.
In the past, people with an egg allergy had to check with their doctor about whether the flu vaccine was OK for them because it's grown inside eggs. But health experts now say that the amount of egg protein in the vaccine is so tiny that it's safe even for kids with a severe egg allergy. This is especially important during a severe flu season.
Still, a child with an egg allergy (who has had symptoms more severe than hives) should get the flu vaccine in a doctor's office, not at a supermarket, drugstore, or other venue.
Getting a Flu Vaccine During the COVID-19 Pandemic
The flu season seemed milder during the COVID-19 pandemic, as fewer people got infected or were hospitalized with the flu. This was probably tied to public health measures that protected against coronavirus, as they also protect against the flu. These included wearing masks in public, social distancing, and less travel. Increased flu vaccination rates also might have helped. If these precautions happen less, the rate of flu infections will go back up, so it's still important to get a flu vaccine each year. People can get a flu vaccine at the same time they get the COVID-19 vaccine.
When Should I Call the Doctor?
Call your doctor if:
Your child is sick and has a fever, and you aren't sure whether to reschedule the vaccine. Kids with a mild illness, like a cold, usually can still get the vaccine.
Your child has problems after the immunization, such as an allergic reaction or high fever, or if you have other concerns.
Reviewed by: Jonathan M. Miller, MD and Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD