Skip to main content

The best way to avoid the flu

Portrait image of Dr. Paz By Hal Paz, MD, MS

Girl blowing nose

Getting an annual flu shot is a no-brainer for lots of Americans ― about 148 million of us. Health-care workers, adults over 65, people with chronic health conditions and parents of young children tend to make it part of their fall routine, like breaking out the winter coats or decorating for the holidays.

You see, the flu is not just a bad cold that keeps you in bed for a few days. It can be dangerous, especially for kids and seniors. On average, 200,000 Americans are hospitalized due to flu-related illness every year. And depending on the severity of the flu season, the virus kills between 12,000 and 56,000 people nationwide.

But numbers are hard to relate to, so I’ll give you an example. Over Thanksgiving weekend, a 20-year-old mother of two little children in Phoenix, Arizona, caught the flu from family members and died two days later. According to news reports, the otherwise healthy woman had not received her flu shot. While there’s no guarantee that the flu shot would have saved this young mom, it would have boosted her odds of being protected.

This flu season looks to be long and harsh. Australia is coming off one of its worst flu seasons in years, where the influenza A strain (H3N2) caused more than double the infections as last year and was responsible for 81 percent of flu-related deaths. The young mom in Arizona died from that same strain.

I hear many justifications for not getting vaccinated. The most common is, “The flu shot can make you sick.” No matter what you read elsewhere online, you can’t get sick from the flu shot. The other thing people say is, “Why bother? The vaccine doesn’t guarantee 100 percent protection.” My response is that it’s better to have some protection than none at all.

Not convinced? Keep reading to learn the real answers to common questions about the flu shot.

What is in the flu shot exactly?

The modern flu shot is made from an inactivated form of several flu strains. It trains your immune system to build up defenses against the virus in case you are exposed. The dead flu used in the vaccine cannot make you sick. Really.

Are flu shots effective?

Flu shots don’t offer 100 percent protection, it’s true. Your protection level depends on a variety of factors, including how well the vaccine matches the strains that are circulating in your community. But remember this: If you do get vaccinated, the antibodies you build up offer some cross-protection against the other strains, so you won’t be as sick or as contagious.

So you can still get the flu even if you get the shot. But if I told you there was a shot that offered 60 percent protection against death by car accident, cancer or heart disease, wouldn’t you take advantage of it?

When should you get the flu shot?

Ideally, you should get vaccinated by the end of October. But getting a shot in January or February is still worth it. The flu season can extend well into spring, sometimes as late as May.

Who should get the flu shot?

Everyone ages 6 months and older should get the flu shot. It’s especially important for high-risk groups: pregnant women, young children, adults 65 and older, and anyone with a health condition, like asthma or diabetes, or a compromised immune system.

I hear some generally healthy people say, “No thanks, I never get the flu. I don’t need it.” Consider getting vaccinated to protect your loved ones, friends and community. While you may not develop flu symptoms yourself, you can still carry the virus and pass it on to those more vulnerable. Imagine giving the flu to your elderly parent, your neighbor’s baby or a coworker.

If you do one thing to safeguard your health this year, I urge you to get your flu shot. There’s no easier way to be a health hero.

Many health insurers, including Aetna, offer the flu shot at no cost to members. Call your plan provider or primary care physician to learn more.

For more information on flu prevention and symptoms, read “Stay safe during flu season”.

About the author

Dr. Paz is Aetna’s executive vice president and chief medical officer. In that role, he leads policy decisions and drives innovations to improve patient experience. He is trained as a pulmonologist, a specialist who focuses on people with lung conditions.