How serious is the flu?
Many people think the flu is nothing more than a bad cold — until they come down with it. When your entire body aches, your energy vanishes, and a fever, dry cough, sore throat, and headaches set in, it’s impossible to mistake the flu for a mild illness. It can be extremely debilitating, and in rare cases, it is even fatal.
The flu can hit anybody hard, but it’s especially dangerous for people over 65 and others with weak immune
systems. If you’re older, it’s particularly dangerous because the viral infection can exhaust your body,
making it easy for life-threatening complications such as bacterial pneumonia to take hold. It can also worsen the symptoms of conditions like heart disease, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Should I get a flu shot?
It’s a really good idea. For years, the CDC urged every person 65 and over to get an annual flu shot. But for some years, the CDC has updated its guidelines to recommend that everyone over 6 months old get the shot (unless, of course, you have a contraindication to the vaccine).
Besides the very young and very old, the CDC recommends flu shots for the following
groups at high risk for flu-related complications in particular:
- People with chronic lung disease such as asthma,
or cardiovascular disease (except high blood
- People who need regular medical care (or needed
hospitalization in the past year) for diabetes,
kidney problems, blood cell diseases, or immune
- People who are extremely overweight (a body mass index of 40 or higher)
- People who live or work with anyone at risk for
flu-related complications. This is to make sure
those who have contact with seniors (or other
high-risk people) don’t inadvertently pass the
infection on to them.
In addition, it’s a good idea to be vaccinated against
pneumococcal pneumonia (the pneumonia caused by strep
bacteria) if you’re over 65 or in one of the high-risk
groups above. You can get this shot anytime, including
the day you go in for your flu shot.
Is the flu shot safe?
Although it’s a common fear, it’s impossible to catch
the flu from a flu shot. The vaccination contains a
killed virus that stimulates your immune system to make
antibodies but can’t cause disease. The most common side
effect (in a third of all people) is a little soreness
and swelling at the site of the shot. About 5 to 10
percent of people, especially children who have never
been exposed to influenza viruses, develop mild fever,
fatigue, and body aches immediately after the
There are certain people who should not get vaccinated. Talk with your doctor
if you think you have an allergy to hens’ eggs, if
you’ve had a severe reaction to a flu shot in the past,
or if you’ve developed Guillain Barre Syndrome within 6
weeks of a flu shot. The CDC says the vaccine is currently safe for people with an allergy to eggs, but if you’ve had a reaction stronger than hives, that you should have the shot in a medical setting where you can be observed for any allergic reactions.
How effective is it? Is there a chance I can catch the
A flu shot is your best defense against the wily virus — a 2018 study found that flu vaccination among adults reduced the risk of being admitted to an intensive care unit with flu symptoms by 82 percent.
Keep in mind that the shot isn’t as effective when you
get older for the same reason you can’t fight off the
flu as easily — your immune system isn’t as good as
making antibodies to fight off bacteria, viruses, and
other intruders. So even if you get vaccinated, it
helps to be careful. Wash your hands often when you’re
around people who may have the flu, and if possible,
avoid spending a lot of time in crowded buildings — the
flu virus spreads when infected people cough or sneeze.
Do I need a flu shot every year?
Yes. Unlike many other vaccinations, a flu shot does not
give you lifelong protection. The flu virus comes in
many different strains that change from one year to the
next, and the shots are only designed to protect you
from the few major strains that are expected to be a
problem in a certain year. Even if the same strain comes
back a year later, your immunity can weaken between flu
When should I get a flu shot?
The best time to get a flu shot is between early September and late October (or as soon as the vaccine is available) and throughout
the flu season. Within one to two weeks, your body will
develop antibodies against the disease. Since the flu
season generally runs through March and even May, getting vaccinated
as late as February may still save you some misery, but
it’s best not to wait until the last minute. You’ll want
protection for the duration of the yearly epidemic; in
addition, supplies of the vaccine often run out towards
the end of the flu season.
Will my insurance cover it?
Low cost flu shots are available at many clinics and
pharmacies at the beginning of flu season. If you have
Medicare Part B or C, your flu shot is free every year
(there’s no co-pay and it doesn’t apply towards your
deductible) no matter where you get it, as long as your
doctor orders it and the provider accepts Medicare and
doesn’t charge more than what Medicare will pay. Members
of Medicare HMOs need to ask their health plan for
details. If you have Medicare Part B, the pneumonia shot
is also free when your physician orders it.
How can I treat the flu?
If you think you have the flu, schedule an appointment
with your doctor promptly. He or she can prescribe drugs
that fight the flu virus, but they’ll only help if you
take them within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms. Your
doctor can also determine if you really have the flu or
if your symptoms indicate one of several other illnesses
— such as viral bronchitis or rhinovirus infections —
that also make the rounds every winter.
You can take several steps on your own to ease the
misery of the flu or keep from getting it in the first
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Wash your hands with soap and water for at least
20 seconds, especially after you cough, sneeze, or
touch your eyes. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are
great for killing germs when you’re on the go.
When someone in your house is sick, antibacterial
wipes are good to use on surfaces in high-traffic
areas, such as kitchens and bathrooms.
- Don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. (You can
spread germs from the mucus in your eyes and mouth
- Cough or sneeze into a tissue, then throw it out
immediately afterward. If you don’t have a tissue
handy, cough or sneeze into your elbow or sleeve.
- Killing germs is one thing; staying healthy is
another. Getting enough sleep, staying hydrated,
and eating lots of fruits and vegetables will help
keep your body’s immune system working at its
Finally, if you feel sick or have a fever, stay home
until the fever is gone for 24 hours (without having to
take medicine to reduce it). If you’re sick, limit
contact with others unless you need a friend or relative
to bring you medication or other supplies.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Seasonal Influenza (Flu), accessed May 30, 2021.
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Increasing influenza and pneumococcal immunization
rates: a randomized controlled study of a senior
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