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Should I get the flu vaccine? What to know about the flu season

It's absolutely not too late to get the flu shot, experts say.
/ Source: NBC News

Flu season is picking up earlier than normal this year.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is already reporting widespread activity in six states, mostly in the South and West: Alabama, California, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nevada and South Carolina. At this time last year, no states showed widespread activity.

The main thing to remember is that it's absolutely not too late to get the flu shot, said NBC News medical contributor Dr. Natalie Azar.

The flu season peaks between December and March, and the CDC recommends everyone 6 months and older get a flu vaccine each season.

Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended shots for kids, and not the FluMist nasal spray, saying the shots worked better. But for the 2019-2020 flu season, it noted that "any licensed, recommended, age-appropriate vaccine available can be administered, without preference of one product or formulation over another."

Last year, a major hospital group said it was choosing egg-free vaccines for patients and staff.

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center said it would only be buying the two egg-free vaccines on the market: Flucelvax and FluBlok. That’s because there is some evidence these two formulations may work better than the older vaccines grown in eggs, said Dr. Richard Zimmerman, who advises the UPMC Influenza Committee.

“The egg-free vaccines appear to have perhaps a 10 percent higher effectiveness over the traditional egg-based vaccines,” Zimmerman said in an interview.

“Given the recent information about the egg-free vaccine, I plan for my family to get the egg-free this year.”

It's known that flu vaccines in general do not protect people as well as most other vaccines do.

Americans have about a dozen different influenza vaccines to choose from, produced by seven different manufacturers. There’s a high-dose vaccine for elderly people and formulations approved for children and babies.

Most people don’t even know which vaccine they are getting, as clinics, pharmacies and doctors usually make their own arrangements with suppliers.

There are several problems with using eggs to make vaccines, one of which is a mutation the current H3N2 flu virus gets when it is grown in eggs. It makes the virus harder for the human immune system to recognize and fight it.

The result is a flu vaccine that doesn’t offer much protection.

FluBlok uses genetic material from the most common circulating flu viruses and combines it with an insect virus called a baculovirus grown in caterpillar cells.

Flucelvax is grown in canine kidney cells.

Manufacturers hoped these processes would make them both quicker to manufacture and more effective.

Flu is a major killer. The CDC estimates that between 140,000 and 700,000 people get sick enough from flu every year in the U.S. to need hospital care, and the annual flu epidemic kills anywhere from 12,000 to 56,000 people a year, depending on how bad the flu season is.