This year’s flu discussion isn’t debunking flu shot myths as we have in the past. Instead, we’re addressing the most common question I’ve fielded the last few weeks in the pharmacy:
“Is it too early to get a flu shot?”
Almost a moment later, a different person will say,
“I heard to get a flu shot as soon as possible.”
“My doctor told me I should wait!”
Which way is up?
In this article, I describe the timing factors to consider to make the best decision, and then I just answer the question for you. As you can see in the title, no, it’s not too early to get a flu shot.
Important note on this article: The figures presented are oftentimes averages or statistical percentages. Therefore, they are not hard and fast, but fuzzy. You have to be cool with nuance in this discussion!
Why Does Flu Shot Timing Matter?
Flu shots provide immunity over time, but that immunity doesn’t last.
The Immunization Action Committee states that protection will last at least 6 months. This is a good FAQ about flu shots that I believe everyone should read.
Immunity also drops off faster in patients over 65.
Flu season generally starts around October in North America, but predicting starts and peaks is a difficult task.
The CDC also states that, historically, 75% of influenza seasons peak in January or after. The season could last as late as May.
We’re trying to balance all of that to ensure you have optimal protection at the right time, but we could technically (and honestly) completely miss.
Here’s a graphic of the past few years’ flu seasons. Your goal, after all is said and done, is to have your protection cover as much of the peak area as possible. This is the “sweet spot.”
Let’s Complicate Things a Bit Further
Let’s add a few more variables to this stinky word problem, shall we?
Immunization doesn’t happen immediately. The expert’s rule of thumb is two weeks; it takes two weeks between immunization and full protection capabilities.
That means we need to get our shot at least 2 weeks prior to that very concrete date of October-ish.
Ready for another variable? Sometimes flu shots are in short supply. “Thanks, now I have to worry about YOUR inventory problems?”
In true shortages, highest risk patients (over 65 or younger people with chronic conditions like heart or lung disease, for example) should get what is available first.
Therefore, if you wait too long, a shot may not be available for you! It hasn’t been a problem recently, nor will it be this year, but it has happened a few times in my relatively short career.
Another factor is waiting for the fancy schmancy. Some people delay vaccination to hold out for the “boutique” shots: the high dose flu shot or the preservative-free versions.
The best flu shot is the one that you get in a timely manner.
Here’s what I mean: if you wait until the end of September to get that high dose flu shot, you’ll be out mid-October before the protection kicks in fully. This is probably fine, but there is a risk of you not being protected for an earlier flu season.
Don’t wait for the fancy shot, just get one when you can.
“Get a Flu Shot As Soon As Possible”
The CDC’s guidance, especially this year, is to get a flu shot as soon as possible.
The reason they say this takes into account the biggest factor: most people won’t get a flu shot until it seems ‘real’ to them.
It’s so very “us” to wait until either people near them are getting sick or the news says it’s getting bad. Remind you of any random global pandemic you may have experienced anytime lately?
Waiting until it feels real is way too late.
Don’t do the typical American thing and wait until it becomes more “real.” Plan and get proactive.
The Best Time to Get a Flu Shot
I get it. This ends up being the debate or discussion it is because the messaging seems muddled.
“Get it as soon as possible” gets bounced against “wait because the season starts October and immunity wanes over time.”
Everyone has an opinion on when EXACTLY this should be. I hope now you’re in a clearer spot to make the decision on when the best time for you to get the shot is.
If not, let me help.
The best time to get a flu shot is anytime between September 1st and October 15th.
The second best time is as soon as you can. That means if you’re somewhere in late August, you’re a low-risk patient already, and you’re not likely to make it somewhere to get a shot in the ideal time, get it then.
It also means that if you ignore my advice completely or don’t think the flu is a thing, but then decide to join the part late in the game—as late as March!—just get the shot.
Just trying to keep it real…
Neal Smoller, PharmD
Owner, Pharmacist, Big Mouth