Making Sense Of Contradictory Information About Flu Shots

Oct 10, 2018

The flu vaccine can be administered in two forms: a nasal spray or a shot. The shot does not contain the live virus. The nasal spray does contain the "live" virus but at a very weakened level.
Credit University of Texas System

It may not feel like it, but it's flu season. Though the virus typically reaches its peak in winter, when exactly are you supposed to get your flu shot? 

Dr. Coburn Allen, an infectious disease specialist, physician and associate professor of pediatrics at UT Austin's Dell Medical School, says, like many factors surrounding the flu, it's all about timing. 

Yes, the disease often peaks in December, January and February, but he points out that the flu is unpredictable and regional. 

"Quite often, it comes through California or it comes through Texas, and we're the first folks to see it, " says Allen. "If you look back over the years, we've seen peaks in October."

Allen says he is not very concerned about people getting the vaccine too early, or even too late. He says people who have not gotten the vaccine should still get it as long as the flu is still circulating. "There are often three or four flu strains circulating in one year, and the vaccine actually has four or three protective strains in it," says Allen. "You may not get all four strains every year, but you may, and it may be as far out as March or April before you start to see some of the 'B' strains that are in the vaccine."

Allen says the specific timing of getting the flu shot does not concern him as much as whether people actually get it. He understands that persuading people to get an annual shot is a tough sell. But Allen says in the future, flu vaccines might not need to be an annual event.

"The Holy Grail right now in terms of flu vaccine research is to try and find a conserved antigen... that every flu has ever had since the 1918 epidemic is in the horizon," says Allen. "And there actually is starting to be some pretty promising data that we may not need yearly flu shots in the future. We may need once every 10 years, once every 20 years."

Listen to the full KUT interview here: