December marks the beginning of winter, which means flu season is here. Actually, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), flu season runs from October through May, with peak activity between December and February in most parts of the country. Knowing that, it is natural to wonder, “Is it too late to get a flu shot?” The short answer is no, for several reasons that we will cover below.
What is the latest date to get a flu shot?
Since flu season runs for six months, it is never “too late” to get a flu vaccine. Granted, the ideal time to get a flu vaccine is sometime in October before flu season starts, as it takes two weeks for the immune system to fully respond to a vaccine. But just because October came and went does not mean the flu will. In fact, getting vaccinated later can still be beneficial, and vaccinations should continue to be offered throughout the flu season, even into January or later.
Some healthcare providers and pharmacies start offering flu shots as early as July. These early vaccinations are typically meant for children and those who may need two shots in one season, such as children between six months and nine years of age, those getting their first flu vaccine, or the elderly. Early vaccination is not recommended for people who only need one flu vaccine, as its effectiveness decreases over time and may not last through the end of flu season.
Every year, there are a couple of different flu variants that circulate: two influenza A viruses, H1N1 and H3N2, and one influenza B virus. The specific viruses in an annual flu vaccine depend on which are likely to circulate during that year’s flu season. So, with all that being said, even if you have had the flu this year, the flu shot covers different strains, so it can help protect you from getting another strain of influenza.
It is always better to get a flu vaccine than to not, for several reasons. For one, flu vaccination prevents millions of illnesses and flu-related doctor’s visits each year. According to the CDC, in 2019–20, flu shots prevented an estimated 7.5 million influenza cases, 3.7 million influenza-associated medical visits, 105,000 influenza-associated hospitalizations, and 6,300 influenza-associated deaths.
Benefits of the Flu Vaccine
Getting a flu vaccine may also protect people around you, including those more vulnerable to serious flu illnesses, like babies and young children, older people, and people with certain chronic health conditions. As a matter of fact, flu vaccination is an important preventive tool for people with certain chronic health conditions.
Flu vaccines have been associated with lower rates of cardiac episodes among people with heart disease, including those who have had a cardiac event in the past year. Per the CDC, getting a flu vaccine can lower the chances of chronic lung diseases being worsened by the flu.
For pregnant women, the flu vaccine could even be lifesaving. Getting the flu vaccine can reduce the risk of flu-associated acute respiratory infections in pregnant people by about half. Additionally, a 2018 multi-country study found that getting a flu shot reduced a pregnant person’s risk of being hospitalized with flu by an average of 40%.
Lastly, flu vaccines taken during pregnancies have a long record of helping protect the baby from flu for several months after birth, when they are too young to be vaccinated themselves (under six months, per the CDC).
Is It Too Late To Get a Flu Shot in December?
To recap, the CDC recommends getting vaccinated by the end of October, although it is never too late, as peak flu season occurs between December and February. Getting the yearly flu vaccine can protect you from severe flu illnesses, which could require hospitalization. For those with diabetes and chronic lung diseases, the flu vaccine has been shown in separate studies to be associated with reduced hospitalizations from a worsening of their chronic conditions.
The main takeaway is that you should always try to get a flu vaccine, even if it is past the CDC’s ideal timeframe for one, as the benefits can be lifesaving. However, it is important to note, if you are already feeling sick, check with your healthcare provider before going in for a flu shot: If you have a mild illness like a cold, they may say it’s OK to get it. But if you have a fever over 101℉ (38℃), they will probably ask you to wait until you are feeling better.