The fall 2022 flu season may hit early and hard this year, so it’s best to get your flu vaccine as soon as possible.
To prepare for the upcoming fall and winter flu season, U.S. medical experts keep a close eye on how the flu season played out in the southern hemisphere during their recent fall and winter (from about April through August of this year).
And data from Australia point to a possible rough, early flu season in the northern hemisphere.
“Every year, we try to guess when the flu is going to hit and when we should get our vaccines. Some people wait to get their flu shot until right before Thanksgiving in case they’ll be traveling over the holidays,” said Barron, UCHealth’s senior medical director of infection prevention and control. “Based on what we’re seeing in the southern hemisphere, that’s not the best plan this year.”
Her advice: “Don’t wait. Get your flu shot as soon as it’s available.”
Barron reminds people that it takes about two weeks after you get your flu shot for the vaccine to fully go into effect.
Getting your flu shot relatively early this year — in September or October — is the best way to brace yourself for what could be an early, virulent flu season.
“The flu vaccine will protect you for four to six months. If you’re a little off on your timing, that’s fine. It’s best to be early this year. If you get your shot too late, it just means you’re more at risk of getting the flu,” said Barron, who is also a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine on the Anschutz Medical Campus.
We consulted with Barron about how the flu season played out in Australia and what could happen during the fall and winter months in the U.S. She also answered some frequently asked questions about the flu and how COVID-19 may affect the flu season.
When will we know if we’re going to have a bad flu season in 2022 and 2023?
“We won’t really know until it hits us,” Barron said. “I would love for us to change the course of the flu this year. If we get enough people vaccinated and we’re smart, maybe we can do that. But we won’t know exactly what happens with the flu until it starts to spread.”
Why are you concerned that we may have an early, bad 2022 flu season?
It’s very difficult to predict exactly how this year’s flu season will play out, Barron said. But, the best indication of what could happen here is to look at what happened with flu cases in the southern hemisphere. So, Barron keeps close tabs on reports from Australian infectious disease experts.
And in the southern hemisphere, the flu hit early and hard this year. It’s more typical for flu cases to peak between July and September in Australia. This year, they began climbing in April and peaked at very high levels in May and June. (Please see the chart below from Australian health officials.)
This year, Australian health officials saw a larger spike of flu cases than they had in several years.
“If you look at the COVID-19 years, flu cases rarely hit the radar. But if you look at the slope of the curve in Australia and how quickly people got sick, it took off fast,” Barron said.
“Their peak was early. That’s comparable to November and December here (when cases typically peak in the U.S. in January and February). That’s what I’m worried about,” Barron said.
How has COVID-19 affected flu seasons in recent years?
The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically reduced cases of the flu around the world. Stay-at-home measures and interventions like masking and social distancing, reduced cases of COVID-19 and also prevented the spread of the flu. So, in both 2020 and 2021, flu cases were much lower than in typical years. Now, as people are resuming their normal activities and few are taking precautions like wearing masks regularly, the flu can spread more easily.
In addition, our bodies’ immune systems aren’t used to fighting the flu, so we may be more vulnerable this fall and winter, Barron said.
“We haven’t had exposure for two years, so when it comes to flu, our immune systems aren’t revved up and ready to go,” Barron said.
She uses the analogy of running.
“If you’re training for a marathon, it’s time to start running again. You can’t rest on your laurels, like your fitness in the past. It’s time to log some miles and get your immune system up and ready again because the flu is coming,” Barron said.
Can I get both a COVID-19 vaccine and a flu vaccine at the same time?
Yes. It’s perfectly safe to get both shots at the same time, Barron said. And that’s really convenient. Many people will want to do exactly that in September and October of this year. If everyone who is eligible gets both a new flu and COVID-19 shot this fall, we could dramatically reduce severe cases of both flu and COVID-19 this fall and winter, Barron said.
Getting an annual flu and COVID vaccine could become our new normal, and in future years, the two vaccines could be combined into one vaccine.
When will flu shots be available?
Most medical facilities are getting flu shots now. Check with your doctor’s office or your employer and book an appointment soon.
When will the new COVID-19 booster shots be available?
The new COVID-19 booster shots that specifically fight the newest omicron variants recently have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Like flu shots, these new COVID-19 boosters should be available throughout the U.S. within days.
What’s the best timing if I’m going to get my flu shot?
Barron advises people to get their flu shots as soon as possible, and definitely by October.
Does the flu vaccine prevent me from getting sick or rather, from severe illness, hospitalization and death?
No vaccine is perfect. And flu vaccines are especially complex, Barron said. That’s because vaccine makers have to guess in advance which flu strains will be circulating later that year. Then they create a vaccine that they hope will fight the prevailing flu strains.
During some years, the flu vaccine works better than in other years.
But even when it’s not a perfect match, getting the flu vaccine can dramatically reduce hospitalizations and deaths from the flu.
“It keeps you out of the hospital and it keeps you from dying,” Barron said.
That’s why her advice is quite simple now: “Get your flu vaccine.”
“This is probably going to be a bad flu year. Please protect yourselves,” she said. “For the past few years, we’ve been focused on COVID, COVID, COVID. But, we did see a surge of the flu in May of this year. That’s a preview of what could happen this fall and winter. A lot of people could get sick. The flu will be back.”
There’s a myth that the flu shot can give you the flu. What’s the truth about the flu shot and getting the flu?
“The flu shot does not give you the flu. The shot does not contain live virus. As with any vaccine, there can be side effects, but those are normal,” Barron said. “If you get the flu after you get the flu shot, you were going to get it anyway. That’s just a case of bad timing and bad luck. The best way to avoid getting the flu is to get your flu shot as early as possible.”
Is there a special type of flu shot for older people or those who need an extra boost to their immune system?
“Yes. There’s a high dose flu shot for people over age 65. It’s meant to give you an extra boost to your immune system,” Barron said.
When you schedule your flu shot with your medical provider, if you are older, you should automatically get the specially-formulated shot for older adults. But, of course, it’s wise to ask about which type of flu shot you are getting.