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CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky says flu shots are being distributed now, and the best time to receive a flu shot for most adults is by the end of October.
Health officials have revised previous recommendations to enable unvaccinated Americans to get vaccinated against the flu and COVID-19 concurrently, including those who are expecting a third dose this fall.
Top health experts indicate that current research does not indicate that healthy adults will experience more side effects if they chose to receive the two vaccines at the same time.
According to one leading expert, there is a time window that may potentially reduce the severity of any potential side effects for those looking to space each vaccine out.
Now that Labor Day has come and gone, you've likely started to spot them — flyers in your local pharmacy or notices in clinics advertising the availability of flu vaccines. While all of the United States continue to be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, more Americans may be thinking about getting the flu vaccine sooner rather than later, especially given that additional COVID-19 vaccines are set to be released this fall. With teams at Pfizer and Moderna prepping to roll out additional vaccine doses later this month, you might be worried about getting both shots in a window of time that won't overload your immune system.
The good news? You don't need to break out a detailed calendar to ensure best results, experts say — and officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say getting both a seasonal flu vaccine as well as any COVID-19 vaccinations is crucial for optimal protection this upcoming winter.
While medical experts recorded historically low flu transmission among Americans this year, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, M.D., MPH, tells Good Housekeeping that the flu and other viruses are poised to impact more people this season as social distancing efforts have loosened since vaccines were introduced earlier this year. "We are already seeing the return of other common respiratory viruses this season, which leads us to believe we could experience an annual epidemic of flu this season, as we do during most winters," Dr. Walensky says. "There are concerning reasons why flu could be back with a vengeance this fall and winter."
Because flu activity was disrupted last year, antibodies that usually protect many individuals from annual flu illnesses have likely waned as time passed. "This means there may be many people, both children and adults, who have less immunity against flu this season than during previous seasons because they weren't exposed to flu last year — particularly among those who were not vaccinated last season," Dr. Walensky adds.
Getting a flu shot this season is more important than ever, and vaccine manufacturers have updated current flu vaccinations to stem the spread among those who may be returning to in-person work at offices, school, church, social clubs, or making frequent trips to visit family or friends, including those at higher risk for a severe flu illness. "Two of the four recommended vaccine [flu] viruses were updated to better match the viruses that research indicates will be most common," Dr. Walensky explains, adding that a potential record-setting amount of 200 million flu vaccines should be made available this year.
William Schaffner, M.D., medical director for the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and an infectious disease professor within Vanderbilt University's School of Medicine, shares that questions are already being raised about the flu vaccine's side effects as some Americans battle what he calls "vaccine fatigue" in 2021. Currently, CDC officials list eight potential side effects associated with a flu shot, most common being muscle aches and soreness.
Officials and experts like Dr. Schaffner aren't expecting any change to the flu vaccine's well-documented temporary side effects. But it's fair to say many people may be wary about how getting vaccinated against the seasonal flu, as well as receiving additional COVID-19 vaccines, may affect their health. Below, top medical experts answer frequently asked questions and share a timeline for getting both vaccines later this fall.
When is the best time to get a flu shot in 2021?
With the official start to autumn just around the corner, signing up for a flu shot in the next few weeks of September or at your earliest convenience in October is optimal. Dr. Walensky says that health experts indicate that you should receive your shot before Halloween and the end of October. "The general idea is that people should be protected before flu begins spreading in their community," she adds, explaining that antibodies against virulent flu need about two weeks to fully develop and provide optimal protection.
The reason that flu vaccines are available right now is to accommodate some individuals who should receive a shot earlier if they can. These groups include:
Children younger than 8 years old who are receiving a flu shot for the first time. As your child's healthcare provider will explain, they'll need two doses of flu vaccine at least 4 weeks apart. Current CDC guidelines indicate that any child above 6 months of age can receive a flu shot.
Anyone above the age of 65, as these individuals are considered at higher risk for severe complications stemming from flu illnesses. There are enhanced "high-dose" options available for those in this age bracket as well.
Those with underlying health conditions that are chronic, including asthma, kidney disease, diabetes, and heart disease.
Your primary healthcare provider will likely notify you if you need the flu shot sooner rather than later, and vaccine supply is expected to be robust, meaning you may receive a shot at a clinic of your convenience. Currently, pharmacists at CVS and Walgreens, as well as retailers like Walmart and Target, are offering appointments online.
Can I get my flu shot and a COVID-19 vaccine at the same time?
Many Americans may be surprised to learn that upcoming third shots for those who have received mRNA COVID-19 vaccines won't impact your immunity when you'll receive a flu shot. "You can get a COVID-19 vaccine and other vaccines in the same visit," Dr. Walensky explains. "CDC's recommendations have been updated so that you no longer need to wait 14 days between getting your COVID-19 vaccine and other vaccinations."
Dr. Walensky and other federal health officials don't expect that there will be adverse side effects if someone chooses to receive a flu shot and a COVID-19 vaccine at the same time. Administering the vaccines together versus apart hasn't indicated much of a difference when it comes to the way that your immunity is bolstered after a shot, she explains. Immunocompromised individuals or those who are dealing with particular pre-existing conditions may get specific instructions from their doctors to avoid receiving two doses at the same time. Largely, however, you may walk into a clinic or pharmacy to get both a flu shot and a COVID-19 shot at the same time this fall.
That doesn't mean that individuals shouldn't expect some sort of immune response — you will likely feel some of the established side effects associated with COVID-19 vaccines and/or flu vaccines, but it's not expected that you'll feel worse than you would if you just received one and not the other, Dr. Schaffner stresses.
"There's no evidence that side effects of each vaccine multiply each other or anything like that, and the body's immune system has no problem facing more than one vaccine at once," he says. There has been updated guidance made available to healthcare providers on co-administration of vaccines, adds Dr. Walensky, and CDC officials may draft additional instructions and resources during this season.
If you are someone who experienced soreness and fatigue after receiving earlier doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, spacing your vaccines out may help reduce the likelihood of experiencing mild to severe fatigue and tenderness. "[Getting two shots at once] is possible, but I personally wouldn't want two sore arms at the same time — and so if you would wait at least a week between the two, you won't [face the possibility of] simultaneous adverse events," Dr. Schaffner adds.
What if you miss the optimal window for a flu shot?
Peak flu season doesn't occur across the United States at the same time, but Dr. Schaffner says data indicates that February is the most common month for the bulk of peak national influenza transmission. This means you have ample time beyond October for your body to respond to a flu shot, even if flu transmission is picking up in your area. And federal experts still push you to get vaccinated against the flu even in the new year.
"If you miss getting your vaccine in the fall, you can still get vaccinated in January or even later," Dr. Walkensky adds. "As long as flu viruses are circulating in your community, we continue to recommend a flu vaccine as the best way to protect yourself and your family from flu and its potentially serious complications."
Most crucially, whether you decide to get the flu shot alongside your COVID-19 vaccine or separately, you shouldn't delay receiving one over the other — even if it's November or beyond. Remember, current guidance from federal health officials suggests that individuals will need to wait for a third COVID-19 vaccine until about 8 months after their second dose.
"Some Americans will not be eligible for their third dose of COVID-19 vaccine until later in the fall or winter, after October," she says. "In these cases, people should go ahead and get their flu shot, and then schedule their COVID-19 vaccine at the proper time."
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