The most common flu viruses tend to vary from year to year, leading to a different flu shot from one year to the next. Even when the vaccine stays the same, however, that does not mean you should skip your flu shot if you got one the previous year: After being vaccinated, your immunity to the flu declines over time and may not be strong enough to prevent getting sick this season.
You should always consult your doctor before getting a flu shot. There are some people who should not get one, including those who have previously had a reaction to the flu shot or any of its components or have recently been ill with a fever. Another reason not to get a flu shot is if you previously developed a rare syndrome called Guillain-Barré within six months of getting vaccinated. Guillain-Barré syndrome is a disorder in which the immune system attacks nerves in the body, leading to muscle weakness or paralysis. In addition, the flu vaccine is approved only for people older than six months of age, so young babies should not receive it.
It used to be thought that people who are allergic to chicken eggs should not get the flu shot because chicken eggs are used in making the vaccine. That thinking is changing, however, because of studies in which not all people who are allergic to chicken eggs have a serious reaction to flu shots. Experts now say that egg-allergic people who choose to get a flu shot should get it from a health-care provider who is familiar with egg allergy and should remain in the provider’s office for observation for 30 minutes after the injection. If you have not previously gotten a flu shot because of a chicken egg allergy, speak to your health-care provider about the safety of getting one now. If you have had a serious reaction to eggs, your health-care provider may still advise against it. Egg-allergic people should not get the nasal-spray flu vaccine, which is made with live, weakened flu viruses.
The most common form of flu vaccine is an injection given into muscle tissue, just as most other vaccines are given. Another form is given as a microinjection, using an extremely short needle to deposit the vaccine under the skin. This form of vaccine, however, may not be widely available this year and may cost more money. The nasal-spray form of the vaccine is recommended only for healthy people ages 2–49 who are not pregnant and do not have certain health conditions, one of which is diabetes.
You may be able to get a flu shot in your health-care provider’s office. If not, ask your provider’s office staff where flu shots are available in your area. Pharmacies, health departments, and hospital outpatient clinics often offer the vaccine, either at their own facilities or in places such as schools, churches, businesses, and senior centers. Another helpful resource is the “Flu Vaccine Finder” developed by the CDC, located at www.flu.gov/widgets/vaccinelocator.html.
Flu shots should be given by a health-care professional in all cases, and you should be asked beforehand about any relevant allergies. It’s a good idea to let your health-care provider know if you get a flu shot somewhere else. If possible, bring a confirmation receipt of the vaccine to your provider’s office—or have one sent from the location where you received the vaccine—to help maintain an accurate record of your vaccinations.
Medicare and most insurance plans cover the flu vaccine. However, if you get your shot somewhere other than your regular health-care provider’s office, you may want to check to see if the location handles insurance billing for the flu vaccine.
(See “Take-Away Tips for Avoiding the Flu” for for strategies to stay healthy during flu season.)