Fight the flu: Your guide to vaccines

October 16, 2012

Flu season is officially here, and the “Flu shots today”

signs are out in force at pharmacies, supermarkets and bigbox discount stores.

Last year was one of the mildest flu seasons on record, said Dr. Lisa Grohskopf, a medical officer with

the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s influenza division. But she says consumers shouldn’t get complacent; the CDC still recommends everyone older than 6 months be vaccinated.

“We know the flu is unpredictable, so we can’t say what this season will be like,” Grohskopf said.

Federal statistics projected drug manufacturers would produce up to 149 million vaccines for this season.

The CDC does not anticipate shortages. About 132 million immunizations were given in 2011-12, covering

about 45 percent of adults. More people are getting immunized at the same places where they buy their groceries and fill their prescriptions rather than doctor’s offices. Many say they like the convenience.

Retailers usually are set up to process insurance billing onsite, so customers with coverage or on Medicare pay nothing out of pocket.

A CDC report found that in the 2010-11 flu season about 18 percent of adults received their flu shots in

stores, while 40 percent went to their doctor’s office.

States regulate how vaccines are given outside of medical settings, and the CDC has no recommendations about the best place to get a

shot. “We think it’s fortunate you now can get a flu vaccine in a wide variety of places,” Grohskopf said.

Here are answers to the most commonly asked flu questions:

Q: Do I need to be vaccinated against the flu?

A: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone age 6 months and older receive a flu vaccine. Those who most need immunization:

seniors age 65 and older, pregnant women, patients with certain medical conditions, caregivers of patients who develop serious complications from contracting the flu.

Q:How does a flu shot work?

A: Seasonal influenza vaccines combine inactive strains of three flu viruses. The formula, when injected, encourages your immune system to build antibodies that fight infection. The vaccine works against the three most commonly circulating flu viruses:

influenza B, the H1N1 A strain and the H3N2 A strain.

Q: Do I really need a vaccine every year?

A: Yes. That’s because public health officials annually look at which flu viruses will be most prevalent, then set a vaccine formula designed to thwart those

particular strains. So the formula can change from year to year. In fact, the 2012-13 vaccine cocktail is different from last year’s, meaning you could be unprotected if you skip this year’s shot.

Q: What about children? A: Some children 6 months

through 8 years of age require 2 doses of influenza vaccine, according to the CDC. Children in this age group who are getting vaccinated for the first time will

need two doses. Some children who have received influenza vaccine previously will also need two doses. Your child’s health care provider can tell you whether two doses are recommended for your child.

Q: When does flu season start?

A: It typically begins in October and can last through May, with the season peaking in February. But flu is unpredictable, and seasonal peaks vary by region.

Q: Why should I get vaccinated?

A: The CDC advises people to be vaccinated as soon as shots are available, so they’ll be ready when

flu season starts. Many providers began receiving vaccines as early as August, as manufacturers are

shipping earlier. Shots given now should protect you through the season, and you won’t have to worry about supply shortages later. It takes your body two weeksbfollowing the vaccine to form flufighting antibodies. But even if it’s later, the CDC suggests you still go ahead and get a shot.

Q: What about the new high-dose shot for seniors?

A: The Fluzone High-Dose for people older than 65 first became available in 2010. It has four times the antigen of a standard shot to boost the immune response as the body loses the ability to produce antibodies as we age. More side effects have been reported with the high-dose vs. the regular shot. People who have severe egg allergies or who had a serious reaction to a standard flu vaccine should not get the high dose.

Q: What about the nasal spray vaccine?

A: This vaccine is different from the shots in that it contains a live but weakened version of the flu virus. Healthy people ages 2 to 49 can use the spray.

People with egg allergies and serious medical conditions or weakened immune systems — and their caregivers — should not use this vaccine or should

check with a doctor first.

Q: How much does it cost?

A: Seasonal shots cost around $25 to $35. Prices may

be higher for the high-dose and intradermal vaccines.

Q: I hate needles! Can I take a flu pill instead?

A: Sorry, no. But now there is an intradermal vaccine that uses a pin-prick needle, about 90 percent smaller than the standard model. It injects under the skin rather than deep into the muscle, causing less arm-ache afterward. People ages 18 to 64 can have

intradermal vaccines.

Q: Does Medicare or my insurance cover vaccines?

A: Flu shots are covered under Medicare Part B and most private insurance plans. There usually are no out-of-pocket costs to consumers, but ask your provider.

Q: Where can I get immunized?

A: The majority of people get flu shots from their primary care physicians. Some local health departments also offer them. But many local retailers, drug stores and supermarkets are offering shot programs as well. Most don’t require appointments but

allow you to make them. Among those with vaccines:

Walmart (, Walgreens ( and CVS ( Not all

stores or retailers carry intradermal and high-dose shots, so call first.

Q: What are the risks?

A: Serious complications from flu vaccines are rare. Common mild problems include: soreness or redness where the shot was given, fever, headache, fatigue and cough. Allergic reaction symptoms include: difficulty breathing, fast heart rate, dizziness or hives.

People with severe allergies, especially to eggs, should talk to their doctor before getting a shot.

Q: Still have questions?

A: Contact the CDC at 800-232-4636, or go to