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Ah-Choo! A Tough Flu Season Is Coming. When You Should Get Your Shot

A person in a blue surgical mask sits on a chair while a health care worker in protective gear administers a flu shot
A nurse prepares to administer a flu vaccination shot to a woman at a free clinic held at a Lakewood library October 2020.
(Mario Tama
Getty Images)
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This influenza season in the U.S. may begin sooner and be more severe, experts warn.

During this year’s Southern Hemisphere winter, the flu returned to countries like Australia, where it started ramping up months earlier than usual and caused one of the worst flu seasons in recent years. It could be a preview of what’s to come.

How COVID Affected Flu Peaks

In Los Angeles County, flu cases hit their peak much later than normal last season, a mark of the effect that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and changing mitigation efforts like masks have had on flu cases.

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“Once universal masking was relaxed back in March, flu cases rose significantly, leading to an extremely unusual peak. We have never seen a flu season so far out,” said county health director Barbara Ferrer at a press conference Thursday.

“Because there are fewer masks being worn, and there's more intermingling, we're likely to see much more influenza than we've seen in the past two years,” she said.

Who Is Most Vulnerable

Experts caution that very young kids who have not been exposed to flu for two years may be especially vulnerable, as was reflected in the recent Australian flu data.

“Younger children were really affected, children younger than five years of age. And children 10 to 19 had some of the highest rates of influenza for the Australian cases,” said Dr. Priya Soni, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Cedars Sinai Medical Center.

A line graph of flu seasons showing the 2021-2022 season peaking in May, while previous years flu cases peaked in January or February.
Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Dept. of Public Health)

“It's important to realize that flu causes thousands of hospitalizations every year,” she said. “And specifically in kids that are less than two years old, they are more prone to have complications from this infection, including bacterial pneumonias that can happen afterwards and other terrible complications that, on average, lead to a couple hundred [child] deaths per season.”

Who Should Get The Flu Shot

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone six months and older get an annual flu vaccine, since the formulation can change. People aged 65 and older can receive an enhanced vaccine. Flu shots can’t give you the flu and are free to the patient under most health insurance.

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Dr. Soni said it’s safe to get theflu shot at the same time as the bivalent COVID booster, just do one shot per arm. Similar to COVID shots, it takes a couple weeks for antibodies to develop and provide protection.

“We have seen cases where people get the flu immediately after they get the flu vaccine. And so that's why it's even more important to get protected before the peak of the season begins and that we typically recommend that to happen before the end of October,” Dr. Soni said.

Flu shots reduce the risk of getting sick and the severity of illness if you do get the flu. A recent study found flu shots decreased ICU admission by 26% and death by 31% in adults.

What questions do you have about the pandemic and health care?
Jackie Fortiér helps Southern Californians understand the pandemic by identifying what's working and what's not in our health response.