Do flu shots work?

Infectious Diseases Vaccines

Yes. Annual flu vaccines prevent hundreds of thousands of cases of flu and save thousands of lives every year.

The answer to the question “how well do they work” isn’t black and white because it changes from year to year, and even sometimes within a season. But even in a year when the flu vaccine *doesn’t* work particularly well, it still reduces the risk of getting the flu by 40% or more.

In seasons when the vaccine is well-matched to the circulating strains of flu, vaccination can reduce your risk of catching the flu by 60% or more. And so far this season, the circulating strains *are* well-covered by the vaccine.

It also reduces the risk of hospitalization or death, if you do get the flu. A 2018 study showed that adults who were vaccinated for flu had 82% less risk of being admitted to the ICU. A 2021 study showed that vaccinated adults who were hospitalized for the flu were 31% less likely to die of it. A 2022 study showed that flu vaccination reduced children’s risk of life-threatening influenza by 75%.

So yes, flu vaccines work. Exactly how well they work varies from year to year, but even in the worst years, the flu vaccine works.

And flu is really serious! It is not a trivial illness. It remains the most serious infectious disease affecting high-income nations (outside of the COVID-19 pandemic, that is). In a typical year, flu causes tens of thousands of deaths in the United States alone. It’s particularly dangerous for young children and older adults. And even when you don’t end up in the hospital, having the flu feels like getting run over by a bus. It is not just another annoying sniffle.

Usually in the US, flu season really gets going at the end of December and continues through March. But this year, flu has already arrived. CDC reports that “so far this season, there have been at least 8.7 million illnesses, 78,000 hospitalizations, and 4,500 deaths from flu.”

Doctors are seeing patients for flulike illnesses at rates comparable to the peak of many past flu seasons–over 7% of all visits. Just about every state in the nation has “high” or “very high” rates of flulike illness. Compare this to the last pre-pandemic season for the same week, and it’s pretty clear that we’re in for an unusual flu season. CDC’s Flu surveillance report puts it this way: The cumulative hospitalization rate in the FluSurv-NET system is higher than the rate observed in week 47 during every previous season since 2010-2011.

And it’s just beginning: The number of flu hospital admissions reported in the HHS Protect system during week 47 almost doubled compared with week 46.

We hear so many excuses for why people haven’t gotten their flu shot!

💬 “The flu vaccine doesn’t work anyway.” Yes! It does actually! Stop repeating this, it just isn’t true.

💬 “I think I already had flu back in August this year.” No, you didn’t. You’d know. That runny nose you had for 3 days was not the flu. People who have influenza are frequently so feverish, achey, and exhausted that they cannot get out of bed for 4-7 days.

💬 “The one year I got a flu shot, I got the flu.” Well, one year I got a flu shot and I got a flat tire the same week! Getting a flu shot physically cannot cause the flu, it’s impossible. Sorry to hear about your bad luck though.

💬 “I’m allergic to eggs.” There are options for you, ask your clinician.

💬 “I’ve never gotten one before and I haven’t had the flu in years.” This is like someone telling you that they never wear a seatbelt and they haven’t gotten into a car crash in years. Lucky you! Why wait until your luck runs out?

💬 “I like to wait until later in the season.” Flu is already here, big time. Waiting time is done. It is a myth that the vaccine is updated late in the season. It’s the same whether you get it now or wait until January.

💬 “My home remedy for the flu works great. I take zinc and vitamin C all season.” Great. Do that. I bet it works even better if you’ve had a flu shot.

So if you haven’t gotten your flu shot, STOP with the excuses and go get one today. They’re available on a walk-in basis at most pharmacies. There’s no excuse.

And also, masks prevent influenza transmission. This would be a terrific week to wear a mask if you’re wearing a mask “sometimes.”

CDC: Vaccine Effectiveness: How Well Do Flu Vaccines Work?

CDC: Weekly U.S. Influenza Surveillance Report

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