Hi, hello, you should get your flu vaccine ASAP. Better yet, you should get your free flu vaccine ASAP. Yes, even if the first signs of fall haven’t reached you yet, so you’re still fanning yourself and impatiently holding off on fuzzy sweaters. Yup, even if you feel like flu season is forever away. It’s not.
The precise length of flu season varies, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that it typically starts around October and peaks between December and February. The flu vaccine takes around two weeks to become effective, meaning that it’s best to get it by the end of October before the season starts in earnest. So, you know, now.
“This is the time,” William Schaffner, M.D., professor of Preventive Medicine in the Department of Health Policy and professor of Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, tells SELF.
Here’s why you really need to get the flu vaccine every year.
The flu vaccine is recommended for anyone 6 months or older, with very rare exceptions (like people who are severely allergic to a component of the vaccine), the CDC says. (You can read more about how rare this is here.)
There are four kinds of influenza viruses—A, B, C, and D—but typically A and B are the ones that cause annual flu epidemics, the CDC says. Each year, the influenza vaccine is designed to protect against the two strains of Influenza A and one or two strains of influenza B that experts think will be most dangerous that flu season, according to the CDC. Influenza viruses change very quickly, which is why it’s important to get vaccinated every year, Dr. Schaffner says.
No matter which influenza strains are wreaking havoc in a given year, common flu symptoms include fever, coughing, sore throat, runny nose, muscle aches, fatigue, and vomiting or diarrhea, according to the CDC. But to think that the flu is merely a very bad cold severely underestimates its power. Influenza can cause hospitalizations, complications like pneumonia, and even death.
During the 2017 to 2018 flu season, more than 959,000 people were hospitalized due to the flu and more than 79,400 people died from the illness, the CDC reports. Although even otherwise healthy adults can get such severe cases of the flu, the most vulnerable people include young children, the elderly, and those who can’t get vaccines because they’re immunocompromised. This means that even if you can fight off the flu, it’s still possible to give it to someone whose immune system cannot effectively do the same. “You don’t want to give it to your Aunt Susie who has diabetes, and then she gets pneumonia,” Dr. Schaffner says.
To that point: When you get the flu vaccine, you’re contributing to herd immunity (also known as community immunity). This is the baseline level of vaccination a community needs to have to prevent vaccine-preventable illnesses from spreading. Additionally, the CDC notes that even if you do get the flu after being vaccinated, your symptoms will typically be less severe.
“[The flu vaccine is] a significant life-saving, hospitalization-saving, and grief-saving intervention that’s cheap and easy,” David Kim, M.D., M.P.H., deputy associate director for Adult Immunization in the Immunization Services Division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tells SELF. “It really doesn’t make sense to not take advantage.”
The big news this year? The CDC has no preference for the flu shot over the nasal spray vaccine. In previous years, the nasal spray wasn’t as effective against the influenza A virus strain H1N1, but the manufacturer has tweaked the vaccine, the CDC says.
There is one major difference to pay attention to here, though. The nasal spray uses live attenuated (very weak) versions of influenza viruses, while the various versions of the flu shot use inactivated (dead) vaccines or ones that don’t have flu viruses at all. Basically the only time a vaccine can make someone ill with the sickness it’s meant to protect against is if it contains a live attenuated form of the pathogen and they have a vulnerable immune system for some reason. That’s why the nasal spray is only recommended for specific groups who are less prone to illness, like people between the ages of 2 and 49 years old and who aren’t pregnant, the CDC says, whereas flu shots are recommended for those 6 months and over as long as they don’t have any rare contraindications like being allergic to the vaccine.
Beyond that, you should also know that the flu shot is generally more readily available than the nasal spray. Many of the larger pharmacies aren’t carrying the nasal spray this season. (CVS, Rite Aid, and Walgreens all only carry the flu shot, spokespeople tell SELF.) Which brings us to our next point: how you can actually get a free flu vaccine.
Here’s where you can get a free flu vaccine right this second.
You may have seen some ads that make it sound like you can roll into any pharmacy for a free flu vaccine. Major pharmacy chains like Walgreens, Rite Aid, CVS, Walmart, and even Costco do offer flu vaccines, but the cost depends on your specific insurance situation. Here’s what to know if…
You have private insurance through a school or employer: The CDC says that most private insurance companies will allow you to get your influenza vaccine without a co-payment even if you haven’t reached your deductible yet—as long as you go through an in-network provider. That could be a doctor like your primary care provider, or it could be somewhere like a pharmacy. For example, Rite Aid accepts most major health insurance plans like Cigna and Humana, a RiteAid spokesperson tells SELF. CVS also takes most insurance plans, and they provide a locator to help you see if there’s a CVS that accepts your specific insurance, a spokesperson tells SELF. It’s a similar situation with Walgreens, which says it provides coverage under most insurance plans and also has a locator so you can find locations near you that will give you a free flu vaccine.
Just in case, it still makes sense to contact your insurance provider or the pharmacy/doctor you want to see to confirm it’ll be free before heading there for your flu vaccine.
You have an insurance plan through the Affordable Care Act (ACA): All insurance plans obtained through the ACA marketplace include coverage for the flu vaccine (meaning you can get it for free), but sometimes that coverage only extends to certain doctors or pharmacy/clinic locations, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. To be sure of where you stand, contact your insurance provider or the place where you’d like to go for your vaccine.
You have Medicaid: Many of the larger pharmacies, including Rite Aid and Walgreens, say they accept Medicaid for free flu vaccines. But Medicaid coverage for vaccines varies by state, so even though most state Medicaid plans will pay for your flu vaccine, you should get in touch with your state’s Medicaid agency to find out for sure (and to see if Medicaid will only cover the vaccine if you go to certain doctors or pharmacy or clinic locations).
You have Medicare: Similarly, many large pharmacies offer free flu vaccines through Medicare, but it’s always smart to call the pharmacy or get in touch with someone at Medicare to double-check. Additionally, you can get a free flu shot from your doctor or health provider as long as they accept Medicare, according to the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services.
You don’t have insurance, or you’re having a hard time getting the vaccine covered through Medicaid or Medicare: Federally- and state-funded health clinics may have free flu vaccines available. You can find one that might by using the health clinic locator from the United States Department of Health and Human Services. After that, it’s a good idea to contact your local clinic for information about vaccine availability and whether or not you need to make an appointment (this differs by location).
If you’re not able to get the vaccine for free that way, you can still go to a pharmacy. (The CDC offers a locator you can use to find pharmacies that offer flu vaccines near you.) The thing is that in this situation, getting the vaccine will unfortunately cost money. The price will vary based on which provider you choose. At CVS and Walgreens, for example, the cost of the flu shot is about $ 40 for people ages 2 to 64 and around $ 70 for people 65 and older. At Costco, it’s about $ 20 no matter your age.
Other places you may find free flu vaccines? If you’re in college, check with your campus health center. Some employers offer free flu shots too, as do some public libraries (even without insurance, in some cases!).
Here’s what to expect after your free flu vaccine.
After getting a flu shot, you might experience pain at the injection site, as well as redness and swelling. You might also notice a headache, fever, nausea, and muscle aches, according to the CDC. These are totally normal occurrences that should go away within a few days and don’t mean you’ve actually gotten the flu. In some extremely rare cases, the flu shot can cause more serious side effects like Guillain-Barré Syndrome, which happens when the immune system attacks nerve cells in the body, but there are fewer than one or two cases of Guillain-Barré Syndrome per 1 million people who’ve gotten flu shots, the CDC says.
Typical nasal spray flu vaccine side effects are very similar to those from the shot, according to the CDC. Again, these symptoms are usually mild and clear up in a few days. What doesn’t go away after the side effects fade? Your amped up protection against this season’s flu strains.
If you’ve never had the flu before, it can be hard to convince yourself it’s worth taking the time to get vaccinated. Trust us when we say that it’s a good decision. Even if you think you can brave the season unvaccinated, take one for the team. Seriously, think about your family members, commuter buddies, coffee shop comrades, and coworkers. “Nobody wants to be a dreaded spreader and make other people sick,” Dr. Schaffner says.