While the U.S. remains focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to also be aware of flu season as we approach winter. Influenza (flu) viruses typically spread in fall and winter, with activity peaking between December and February. Getting vaccinated now can lower your chances of getting the flu.
Flu is a serious disease, caused by influenza viruses, that can lead to hospitalization and even death. Every flu season is different, and the substantial health impacts can vary widely from season to season, with some flu seasons being worse than others. Your best defense is vaccination, which provides protection from flu and its potential complications.
The flu vaccines are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to prevent flu, and they provide important benefits. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that during the 2019-20 flu season:
- 38 million people were ill with flu.
- 18 million people went to a health care provider for flu.
- 400,000 people were hospitalized for flu.
- 22,000 people died of influenza.
Vaccination prevented more than 7 million flu illnesses, 105,000 hospitalizations, and 6,300 flu-related deaths, according to the CDC.
COVID-19 and Flu
It’s likely that flu viruses and the virus that causes COVID-19 will circulate together this fall and winter. The flu vaccine does not prevent COVID-19. The FDA has approved one vaccine for the prevention of COVID-19 and has issued emergency use authorizations (EUA) for three vaccines to prevent COVID-19.
Meanwhile, the flu vaccines are approved by the FDA for the prevention of influenza disease and to protect against four different virus strains of influenza. Getting vaccinated to prevent this disease can help keep you out of the doctor’s office for a sick visit and preserve health care resources for patients with other diseases and medical conditions, including COVID-19.
The FDA plays a key role in ensuring that safe and effective flu vaccines are available every flu season. Flu viruses are spread by droplets when people infected with the flu cough, sneeze, or talk. Flu may also be spread when a person touches a surface or object that has flu viruses on it and then touches their own mouth, nose, or eyes.
The CDC recommends that adults and children older than 6 months get a flu vaccine by the end of October. Even if you wait until after October, go get your flu vaccine. It’s still beneficial because it can help protect you for the remainder of the flu season. For more information on flu vaccine recommendations, visit this CDC page.
If you have already been sick with the flu this season without getting vaccinated, getting a flu vaccine is still important because it helps prevent disease caused by four different strains of flu viruses. Presumably, you were infected with one type of flu virus strain, so the vaccine would offer protection against the strains that you haven’t already had.
A Flu Vaccine Is the Best Prevention
Flu seasons and their severity are unpredictable. Annual vaccination is the best way to prevent influenza in people ages 6 months and older.
An annual vaccination to prevent flu is the best way to reduce the risk of getting the flu and spreading it to others. When more people get vaccinated, it is less likely that the flu viruses will spread through a community.
The vaccine typically changes each year and contains the four flu virus strains that are expected to circulate in the U.S. during the upcoming flu season. The effectiveness of influenza vaccines varies depending on several factors, such as the age and health of the recipient, the types of circulating influenza viruses, and the degree of similarity between circulating viruses and those included in the vaccine.
The task of producing a new vaccine for the next flu season starts well before the current season ends. For the FDA, it’s a year-round initiative.
The flu vaccine will trigger your immune system to produce antibodies to protect against influenza disease — it will not make you sick with the flu. It can take about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies to develop in the body, which is an important reason to get your flu vaccine early, before flu activity starts.
Why We Need New Flu Vaccines Every Year
There are several reasons a new flu vaccine must be made each year.
Flu viruses can change from year to year, so the vaccine is updated to protect against new virus strains that are expected to circulate in the U.S. The vaccine needs to include influenza virus strains that most closely match those in circulation for the influenza season. In addition, the protection provided by the flu vaccine a person received in the previous year will diminish over time and may be too low to prevent influenza disease into next year’s flu season.
Who’s Most at Risk of Getting the Flu
Typically, children and older people are most at risk of getting sick with influenza. The best way to protect babies who are too young to be vaccinated is to make sure people around them are vaccinated. Occasionally, a flu virus will circulate that disproportionately affects young and middle-age adults.
You also can reduce the spread of the flu and its effects by taking such practical measures as washing your hands, covering coughs and sneezes, and staying home when you’re sick.
The FDA has approved numerous vaccines for the prevention of influenza. But if you do get the flu, there are FDA-approved antiviral drugs, available by prescription, to treat your illness. There are several FDA-approved antiviral drugs recommended by the CDC for use against circulating influenza viruses. These drugs work best if started soon after the onset of symptoms (within 48 hours).
How Flu Vaccine Virus Strains Are Selected
Every year, in late February or early March, before that year’s flu season ends, the FDA, the World Health Organization (WHO), the CDC, and other public health experts collaborate on collecting and reviewing data from around the world to identify the flu viruses likely to cause the most illnesses during the next flu season.
Following that process, the FDA convenes its vaccines advisory committee, consisting of outside experts, to discuss the WHO recommendations and to consider which flu viruses are expected to circulate in the U.S. The committee also reviews data about which flu viruses have caused illnesses in the past year, how the viruses are changing, and disease trends for the U.S. The FDA takes that information into account before it selects the virus strains for FDA-licensed manufacturers to include in their vaccines for use in the U.S.
The closer the match between the virus strains chosen for the vaccine and the circulating strains causing disease during flu season, the better the protection that the flu vaccine provides. Although the vaccine and viruses may not be an exact match in some years, that does not mean the vaccine is not benefiting people. Available data show that the vaccine can reduce the severity of illness in people who get vaccinated but still get sick.
The Flu Vaccine Is Safe
To ensure that the flu vaccine is safe, effective, and of high quality, the FDA prepares and provides reagents (materials to standardize vaccines) to manufacturers that they need to make their vaccine and to verify its identity and potency. The FDA also inspects manufacturing facilities regularly and evaluates each manufacturer’s vaccine annually before it can be approved.
The FDA’s oversight doesn’t end there. After manufacturers have distributed their vaccines for use by the public, the FDA and CDC work together to routinely evaluate reports of adverse events following vaccination submitted by vaccine manufacturers, health care providers and vaccine recipients (or their parents/guardians) to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS).
Additional efforts are in place to monitor vaccine safety. The FDA partners with private organizations that collect health care data (such as health insurance companies) and other federal agencies (such as Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Veterans Health Administration and CDC) to further evaluate the safety and effectiveness of the influenza vaccines and other vaccines that the FDA has approved or authorized for emergency use.
The Biologics Effectiveness and Safety (BEST) Initiative is one of the programs the FDA utilizes to assess vaccine safety and effectiveness in real-world conditions, reflecting patient care and the real-world use of the influenza vaccine and other vaccines in the U.S. In addition, the CDC maintains the Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD) program, which evaluates the vaccines’ safety similar to the BEST Initiative. VSD receives its data from nine integrated health care organizations in the U.S.