(WASHINGTON DC)–“The very best method for preventing an influenza infection or illness is to be vaccinated against it, and it’s best [to get it] as soon as the vaccine becomes available—generally late summer or early fall,” says Pedro Piedra, M.D., professor of molecular virology and microbiology and pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
The vaccine is so effective because the formula produces antibodies specific to influenza viruses that bind the virus and prevent it from infecting you. It also helps eliminate the virus from your system should you catch it, Piedra explains.
Assuming the virus you contract is a strain the vaccine covers, the shot is about 40 to 60 percent effective, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“The flu virus is constantly changing and every year the flu vaccine is updated to cover a number of the most likely viruses that can cause influenza,” explains Navya Mysore, M.D., family physician at One Medical in Tribeca, New York. Some years, the strain that hits isn’t what was predicted (hence the H1N1 pandemic), but you should still opt for the vaccine this fall regardless, Mysore adds.
If you’re needle shy, fear not—the CDC has an alternative way for you to get vaccinated this year: the influenza vaccine is now approved to be distributed via a nasal mist for the 2018-19 season.
Since the nasal spray didn’t work well against the H1N1 strain, it wasn’t recommended for the past few years, causing some confusion over how helpful it was. But Mysore and Piedra both agree:
When it comes to healthy adults under 50, the shot is just as good as the spray this year.
And despite what you may have heard, that includes children.
“For some time it was unclear whether the nasal spray was as effective for kids, but it seems to be comparative this year for kids as well,” Mysore says. (The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees.)
And children should definitely get vaccinated. In fact, everyone over six months old should get the flu vaccine, either the shot or the mist, both docs agree. It’s especially important for those who have chronic diseases or are elderly because their immune systems are weaker—as well as those who are in close proximity to children or the immunocompromised, Mysore adds.
The nasal spray does comes with a few potential side effects. It’s a live vaccine, so it can give you side effects such as fever, runny nose, wheezing, or a headache, and shouldn’t be used by people with a compromised immune system (that includes folks over 50), Mysore says. But most healthy people are fine taking the mist—and don’t have to get poked in the arm.
Get vaccinated as soon as it becomes available, which is generally late summer or early fall—at least by the end of October (though if you miss this marker, it’s still worth it to get the shot or spray at any point in the winter, Mysore adds). Check with your doctor’s office, pharmacy, college health center, even your employer or school to see when they’re offering it.
Sooner is better, because it takes about two weeks for your body to produce the antibodies required to protect you against the virus; and once children return to school, “they become an excellent mixing vector for influenza,” Piedra adds.
In case you haven’t heard, the flu is highly contagious, so even if you don’t have kids, we’ll bet someone you interact with throughout the day does.
While getting your flu shot or spray ASAP should be first priority in prevention, remember to also wash your hands frequently to reduce the spread of germs throughout fall and winter. If you do get sick, stay home from work to prevent spreading the virus, and take an anti-flu medication within the first 48 hours of onset (it won’t help after that), Piedra advises.