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If it’s autumn, then it must be influenza season, which means it’s time to consider flu shots for your family.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American Academy of Pediatrics, and Infectious Diseases Society of America recommend that everyone approved to receive a flu shot get one—including children ages 6 months and older.
While getting the vaccine won’t necessarily prevent you and your loved ones from getting the flu, it can prevent severe and secondary illness related to it, according to Mona Patel, MD, Attending Physician in the Department of General Pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
Dr. Patel notes that flu vaccines are critical for kids who may have conditions that put them at increased risk of illness. She adds that it’s particularly important to get a flu shot when flu season is overlapping with an outbreak of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and COVID-19.
“You never know how bad a flu season will be,” says Dr. Patel. “We like to think of flu shots as preventive care; getting one lessens the chances of more severe symptoms that may cause children to be hospitalized.”
Influenza is dynamic. Like all viruses, it changes every year.
Specifically, the outer coating of the virus is what changes every year. Vaccines, therefore, are designed to stimulate the production of antibodies that attach to the outer structures on the protein coat, basically disabling the virus.
As Dr. Patel explains it, every year epidemiologists and immunologists at the CDC look at global patterns and start to predict what sort of viruses will be coming through. The formula for each season’s flu shot is based on these patterns and predictions.
“If you got a flu shot last spring—basically, if you got it during the last flu season—it may not be effective against the flu that is circulating this season,” she says. “You never know which variant will be passing through, which is why the vaccine needs to be reformulated for every new flu season. That’s why we say it’s important for people to get their flu shots every single year.”
Fall and winter are the times of year when viruses that cause respiratory disease usually circulate more heavily in the community. Dr. Patel says the “typical” flu season starts around the October and lasts through April, but the timing varies and it can start earlier or end later.
Dr. Patel says it’s a good idea to get a flu shot at the beginning of flu season every year, to maximize the benefits. She adds that for those who wait to get the shot, it’s always better late than never.
“You want to get it early enough that it has maximal effect a few weeks later,” she says. “At the same time, I don’t want folks to say, ‘I missed it back in September and October, so I shouldn’t get it.’ If it’s flu season, you should get the shot. It’s better to have some protection than none.”
In any given year, the one-two punch of influenza and RSV presents a challenge for the U.S. health care system. Analysis from the CDC’s Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics indicates that with the addition of COVID-19, even an average flu season can place significant strain on our health care system.
While the three viruses are very different, forecasters have nicknamed the possibility of an overlapping outbreak of all three a “tripledemic.” While the prospect might seem daunting, Dr. Patel says she is hopeful that vaccines will make a difference. For the first time in U.S. history, she notes, vaccines for all three major respiratory viruses—flu, RSV (for younger children), and COVID-19—are available.
“Making sure that you are up to date on the vaccines recommended for you is an important strategy to prevent severe disease and protect yourself and others around you,” says Dr. Patel. “The more we can convince the public to use a public health preventive approach, the more effects we’ll see in the community.”
Beginning Sept. 18, anyone coming to the hospital can get a free flu vaccination at CHLA’s Patient and Family Flu Vaccination Clinic. Children can also get flu vaccines at their appointment in certain clinics. Find schedules, locations and more at our Flu Vaccination Information page.
You can find other locations at myturn.ca.gov. Flu shots also are available at most pharmacies and doctor offices.