Flu shot reminders are popping up at retail pharmacies and grocery stores. Although the season comes around once a year, the influenza virus itself is constantly changing. Shalika Katugaha, MD, system medical director of Infectious Diseases at Baptist Health, helped us look ahead to the flu forecast for the 2023-2024 season.
Flu season is coming
Flu season occurs in the fall and winter in the U.S., with activity typically peaking between December and February. It can last as late as May. More specific timing of the season's peak is difficult to predict and can vary in different parts of the country.
"Flu is among the deadliest vaccine-preventable diseases in the country," said Dr. Katugaha. "Annual vaccination is recommended for everyone 6 months and older. Also, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends getting a flu shot before peak season. Make plans to get it in September or October."
Preliminary CDC estimates from last flu season show people who got a flu shot were about 40% to 70% less likely to be hospitalized because of illness or related complications.
Flu season predictions
Experts look at flu activity in the southern hemisphere and Australia to make predictions about what we may experience in the United States each year.
"Australia had an earlier-than-usual spike in flu illness this year," said Dr. Katugaha. "This means we may have an earlier flu season here, as well."
Dr. Katugaha also explained that because we're returning to our pre-COVID-19 behaviors, we'll likely experience the same respiratory virus seasons/patterns we saw before the pandemic.
That being said, she also noted that there's no evidence to suggest flu or respiratory virus season this year will be worse than before the pandemic.
Time to get a flu shot
"One way to improve your outlook every year is to get the influenza vaccine," said Dr. Katugaha. "Also, it's safe for most people to get both the flu vaccine and a COVID-19 booster at the same time, but it’s best to consult your primary care physician for individual guidance."
Because the flu virus changes each year, the composition of the vaccines is updated annually. All versions in the U.S. are "quadrivalent," which means they protect against four different strains.
In prior flu seasons, doctors recommended people with severe egg allergies be vaccinated in a medical setting. Beginning in the 2023-2024 season, these additional safety measures are no longer recommended.
For adults ages 65 and older, the CDC recommends a special flu vaccine that's higher than the standard dose. Studies suggest that, in this age group, high-dose vaccines are potentially more effective than the standard version.
While vaccination is recommended for all by the end of October each year, getting the shot after that can still provide protection during the peak of the season, reminded Dr. Katugaha.
"This year's respiratory vaccine landscape is different and more hopeful than last year's because of new vaccines and treatments, like the COVID-19 vaccine booster, the RSV vaccine for adults, and the RSV antibody injection for infants," said Dr. Katugaha. "The bottom line: let's roll up our sleeves."