Is It Too Late to Get a Flu Shot?

With this year's flu outbreak reaching a fever pitch, here's important info you need to know about how to stay healthy.

I’ll start with the bad news: it’s turning out to be a really bad flu season, ya’ll. The virus this year is a particularly wicked one, responsible for at least 22 deaths so far here in Pennsylvania and many more in other states across the country. It’s so bad, in fact, that Boston mayor Thomas Menino declared a state of emergency in his city late yesterday, with the Massachusetts death toll sitting at 18 so far.

Okay, here’s the good news: If you didn’t get a flu shot back in the fall, it’s definitely, positively, absolutely not too late to get one now. “There are plenty of vaccines available,” says Connie Cutler, registered nurse and director of infection prevention for Main Line Health. “It’s a good match to the circulating strains.” The CDC reports that 91 percent of the flu viruses that have cropped up in patients were included in this year’s vaccine. So while the flu shot is not a foolproof guarantee that you won’t get sick, experts say it’s by far your best defense. Washing your hands regularly, of course, won’t hurt your odds, either.

Note that the flu shot takes between one and two weeks to reach its full protection-potency. It’s well worth the wait, considering flu season might linger into May. And despite what you may think, the shot itself can’t make you sick: the vaccine is made up of killed or weakened viruses, enough to allow your body to create antibodies, your personal defense network against infection. Says Cutler, “We develop immunity—not disease.”

If you think you have the flu, (please, please, pleeeease) stay home from work. If symptoms are severe and over-the-counter remedies aren’t making a dent, you may want to see a doctor so he or she can test you to see if you have the flu; Cutler says of the 300 people complaining of flu symptoms who turned up at Main Line Health’s five hospitals last week, 125 tested positive. If you have the flu, your doc may be able to prescribe meds that alleviate the symptoms—which, I should note, Cutler described as feeling like you’ve been “hit by a truck” thanks to the awful body aches, often the first symptom.

And for those of you who steer clear of the flu vaccine because you’re terrified of shots, know this: there’s a nasal-mist version you can get instead. It may be slightly less effective than the shot, but as Cutler says, “it’s better than nothing.”