Flu Vaccine: Who Should and Who Should Not Get the Shot

Content provided by the Faculty of the Harvard Medical School

Is it flu-vaccine time already?

As the days shorten and the weather cools, it’s once gain time to start thinking about the influenza or “flu” vaccine. Although many people are distracted by the threat of SARS or West Nile virus, it’s important to keep in mind that influenza kills an estimated 20,000 Americans every year. Getting vaccinated for influenza may be one of the best ways to stay healthy this winter.

The following are some frequently asked questions about the influenza vaccine.

Who should get vaccinated?

Anybody who wants to reduce their chance of contracting influenza. Although the top priority is to vaccinate those at high risk of the disease and its complications, even young, healthy people who get influenza can become quite ill. Influenza vaccine appears to benefit almost everyone, regardless of age or health. Getting the influenza vaccine may help to keep you healthy, and thereby able to take care of your family and avoid missed days from work.

The influenza vaccine is highly recommended for the following high risk groups:

  • Anyone 65 years of age or older

  • Residents of nursing homes and other long-term health care facilities, regardless of their age

  • Anyone with chronic lung or heart lung disease, including those with asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis and heart failure

  • Anyone who has required regular follow-up or a hospital stay within the past year for chronic medical problems including kidney disease, diabetes, and anemia

  • Anyone with a weakened immune system due to HIV/AIDS, cancer, or certain medications (such as prednisone or cancer chemotherapy)

  • Women who will be past the third month of pregnancy during the influenza season (November through April)

  • Children and adolescents on chronic aspirin therapy (due to the risk of

The vaccine is also recommended for the following people:

  • Adults aged 50 to 65

  • Children aged 6 months to 23 months

  • People who can transmit influenza to someone at high risk, including the parents of young children, other household and day-care contacts, health- care workers, and employees of chronic care and assisted-living facilities

  • Almost anyone else who wants to avoid getting the flu this winter

Who should not get vaccinated?

  • Children aged 6 months or younger

  • Anyone who has ever had a serious allergic reaction to a previous dose of influenza vaccine

  • Anyone who has had a serious allergic reactions to eggs (the vaccine is prepared in eggs)

  • People who have had vaccine-associated Guillain-Barr syndrome

If you are scheduled to receive the vaccine but develop a fever or serious illness, talk to your health-care provider about delaying the vaccine until you recover.

I never get sick. Why should I get vaccinated?

Anyone can get influenza, even those who are usually very healthy. The typical case of influenza will cause several days of severe symptoms including high fever, muscle aches, cough and fatigue. Most people will spend the time out of work and in bed.

In the elderly, the very young and in those with underlying medical problems, influenza can cause a life-threatening illness that often requires hospitalization and a prolonged recovery period.

When should I get vaccinated?

In most parts of the United States, influenza season starts no earlier than mid-November and may last until April. Since it takes a little while for your body to respond to the vaccine, the best time for vaccination is during the months of October and November. If you are delayed until December or even January, it still worthwhile being vaccinated since this may protect you from a late outbreak of influenza.

Since there is plenty of flu vaccine available this year, there is no need to delay your vaccine if you are not in the highest risk group.

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If you have the flu, you are contagious one day before symptoms appear and up to five days after.