A flu shot can offer protection against serious illness due to influenza

September 20, 2021

As the seasons shift from summer to fall and leaves begin to change colors, thoughts turn to football, cooler days – and flu shots.

A boy wearing a mask receives a shot in his right arm.
Flu season generally begins in October and lasts through February. A flu shot helps protect against serious illness due to influenza. Photo: Getty Images.

“Typically, flu season begins in October, peaks between December and February and can extend into May,” said Dr. Shannon Becker, a family medicine physician at UCHealth Primary Care – Craig. “While the severity and duration of each flu season can change, we see cases every year.”

Flu vs. influenza vs. stomach flu

When discussing the flu, it’s important to delineate between a few common terms, as they’re not all interchangeable.

“The flu, or influenza, is a viral infection that occurs in seasonal outbreaks due to the virus’ ability to mutate and change,” Becker said. “Influenza A, B and C are all different types of flu that produce upper respiratory symptoms.”

The stomach flu, on the other hand, isn’t related to the influenza family of viruses.

“When someone says they have the stomach flu, they are often experiencing an irritation or inflammation of the lining of the stomach or intestines, often referred to as gastroenteritis, that can be caused by other viruses,” Becker said. “Those viruses include norovirus, adenovirus and rotavirus. They don’t usually cause upper respiratory symptoms like influenza.”

Flu shot facts

According to Becker, there are a few things everyone should keep in mind about flu shots.

  • Everyone should consider getting a flu shot in September or October as it takes the body about two weeks to develop an antibody response. Anyone six months or older is eligible for the vaccine. Flu shots are especially important for young, elderly, pregnant women and people with comorbidities, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or congestive heart failure. Schedule an appointment for a flu shot with your primary care doctor.
  • The goal of a flu shot is to prevent severe infections should you get sick. It can also help prevent complications from the flu, like pneumonia or hospitalization.
  • Flu shots are given on an annual basis. Influenza viruses constantly change and mutate. Each year’s flu vaccine is based on these mutations, giving it the best possible match to fight against the virus.
  • You can’t get the flu from the flu shot. Becker said it’s possible that you could contract the flu or another virus at the time you receive a flu shot, but that’s simply a coincidence in timing.

Importantly, with any questions about flu shots or your health, Becker recommends talking with your health care provider.

A young man receives a vaccine.
Everyone should consider getting a flu shot in September. Photo: Getty Images.

“We want patients to be comfortable receiving their annual flu shot,” she said. “We don’t care if you get your flu shot at a medical clinic, a local pharmacy or at a big-box store — we just encourage you to receive it in a timely manner.”

What does this flu season hold?

Flu activity was relatively low during the 2020-21 flu season, likely due to the safety precautions in place to fight against COVID-19.

“Almost everyone was vigilant and consistent with their preventive health measures last flu season — people wore masks and washed their hands frequently, they stayed home from work if they weren’t feeling well, and they cleaned and disinfected objects and surfaces more frequently,” said Becker. “These are things everyone can do, regardless of a pandemic, to keep themselves and those around them healthy.”

If you feel unwell, stay home, and if you’re experiencing symptoms, get tested. Colds, allergies, flu and COVID-19 have similar symptoms, so without a test, it’s hard to determine what is causing symptoms.

Health care providers caution that the upcoming flu season could be worse this year, especially if people are more relaxed when it comes to preventive measures — which is even more reason to get a flu shot.

About the author

Lindsey Reznicek is a communications specialist at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. She has spent the last ten years working in marketing and communications in health care, an industry she never considered but one to which she's contributed through her work in media relations, executive messaging and internal communications. She considers it an honor to interact with patients and write about their experiences; it’s what keeps her coming back to work each day.

A native of Nebraska, Lindsey received a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism, with a focus on public relations, from the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Kansas State University – she bleeds purple.

She could see a Broadway musical every week, is a huge animal lover, enjoys a good shopping trip, and likes spending time in the kitchen. Lindsey and her husband have two daughters and enjoy hiking in the summer and skiing all winter long.