It is August. School has started. Fall is coming. Flu vaccine has arrived in the store and we have signs everywhere. This prompts a frequent question from my customers: “When is the best time to get a flu shot?” There are a lot of things to consider, and the answer isn’t as easy as you might expect.
Let’s start by discussing why you would want to get a flu shot to begin with. Flu shots work by injecting your body with a small amount of flu antigen and allowing your immune system to develop antibodies against those antigens. You will develop antibodies fully within about two weeks from being vaccinated. When flu season arrives, those antibodies will help your body protect itself from getting the flu. Seems easy, right? This protection doesn’t last forever, it wanes over time. How much time it takes for your protection to decrease is a topic of debate.
The best time to get a flu shot depends on several factors. One factor concerns the status of your immune system when you received the vaccine initially. If your immune system is strong and healthy, it will develop more antibodies. This will give you more effective and longer-lasting protection. This is why you should never get a flu shot while you are sick or on antibiotics. Your age and health status are also important. Young, healthy people usually develop more antibodies than senior citizens or people with poor health status.
The Centers for Disease Control makes policy and recommendations for all vaccines and diseases worldwide. The CDC tells us that it is okay for us to begin immunizing as soon as product is available to us. I believe that this recommendation takes into account the amount of people that must be immunized, and the limited amount of time we have to do it. If everyone is advised to get a flu shot, and everyone waits for an “optimal” time to do it, there may not be a way to handle that volume of patients. Therefore, if we can get started early, it will allow us to manage our patient load a little better and we can vaccinate more patients overall. The more patients we take care of, the less flu we have in our community.
What my company tells me
We provide flu shots at the pharmacy for a lot of reasons. It is a great way to take care of our customers. They can get a flu shot quickly and conveniently, and without having to make an appointment with their doctor. We can attract new customers by giving flu shots. If a customer comes to us only for a flu shot, and is impressed with our service, maybe we can become their full-time pharmacy. The main goal is to protect our community so that flu season has as small an impact as possible on our schools and businesses.
My company tells me that the best time to get a flu shot is as soon as possible. We received our first shipment of vaccine during the second week of August this year. The very first minute it arrived at the store, we were to put up about a dozen signs and start asking every customer if they are ready. The main drive behind this urgency is to get them before someone else does. The longer we wait, the better chance there is that their doctor, or the nurse at work, or some other pharmacy will beat us to it. It will be hard to beat last year’s numbers if we don’t start pushing on day one.
When is flu season anyway?
Flu season usually starts in the fall when kids go back to school and the weather turns cool. It starts slowly and builds gradually. The peak months can vary depending where you live. Generally, you will see January and February as the most active months with some rare seasons that will go as late as April or May.
Why must I get a flu shot every year?
There are a couple of good reasons to get a yearly flu shot. The most important reason is that the flu changes. There are hundreds of different types of flu strains. Each year the CDC tries to determine which strains will be the most prevalent, and includes those strains in the flu vaccine. In order to get the most updated and diverse protection available, it is best to get a yearly flu shot.
The second reason is that your protection wanes, or decreases, over time. How much time it takes to become ineffective is a topic of debate, with little concrete evidence. Some reports say your protection will decrease by 50% within 6 months. Other reports say you are good for at least a year. Others think that once you have been vaccinated for one flu strain, you will always have some level of protection against that strain.
My opinion is that the best time to get a flu shot is mid-September or early October. This is only my opinion. Let me explain why I feel this way. If there is a chance (there is) that your flu shot won’t protect you as well after 6 months, then you should get your flu shot late enough that you won’t be at risk if there is a late flu season. You must also consider the possibility of an early flu season. Remember, we discussed earlier that flu shots don’t hit peak effectiveness for about two weeks after you receive them. Using my preferred recommendation, you can put yourself in the optimal window to protect yourself, and your community, regardless of when flu season actually does hit it’s peak.
I want to be clear that my suggestion is the time I believe would be the best time to get a flu shot. However, with all of the data out there, I don’t have a problem vaccinating people early or late in the season. It is better to get a flu shot early or late, than to not get one at all. My customers trust me and I want to be honest with them. When they ask me, I will give them my true opinion. I will not be pressuring my customers to get their shot in August, even though that is what my employer would prefer. But I also won’t turn people away. If you come to me for a flu shot in August, I am not going to try to talk you out of it. The fact is that you probably will be fine doing it that way.
So, take my advice if you like. But remember, your pharmacy really wants and needs your business during flu season. If you choose to wait, as I have recommended, please make it a point to still use your pharmacy, even though you might have opportunities to do it elsewhere.
If you have a comment or differing opinion please let me know in the comments section. I would love to hear from you.