It’s that time again. Time to get your fall vaccines. October is the month when most doctors recommend we get our annual vaccines for protection against common winter ailments. This year, in addition to the flu shot, medical experts are advising people to get boosted with the new COVID vaccine, as well as the new vaccines approved for use against respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. Although you should always consult a doctor for any medical advice, here is what you should know about this year’s fall vaccines and for whom they are recommended.
The Flu Shot
Despite all of the benefits it offers, only about half of Americans get an annual flu vaccine — whether because of ambivalence, misinformation or lack of access to proper medical care. The flu vaccine prevents millions of illnesses and flu-related doctor visits each year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in years when the vaccine is well-matched to the circulating viruses, the shot can reduce flu illnesses by 40 to 60 percent. In a 2021 study, among patients who did get hospitalized with the flu, vaccinated patients had a 26 percent lower risk of ICU admission and a 31 percent lower risk of death compared to those who were unvaccinated. (Yes, thousands still die from the flu every year.)
As an added benefit, flu vaccination has been associated with lower rates of some cardiac events among people with heart disease, and it may also reduce the risk of a flu-related worsening of chronic diseases, including COPD and diabetes.
According to the CDC, flu vaccine compositions have been updated for the 2023-24 flu season to maximize their potency against the predicted viruses. There are several egg-based vaccine options, as well as cell- or recombinant-based vaccines that you can choose from. (For more information, click here.)
The COVID Vaccine
The COVID vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna have been updated to be more effective against the variants currently responsible for most infections and hospitalizations in the U.S. The CDC recently issued a universal recommendation urging everyone over the age of 6 months to get the updated vaccine, regardless of their previous immunization status. The new vaccine can be given at least two months after your last COVID shot, and you don’t have to wait to get the new one if you’ve recently had COVID.
The reason the CDC is expressing some sense of urgency for people to get this new version of the vaccine is because the latest strains of the virus have mutations that help it evade the antibodies produced by previous vaccines or infections.
The RSV Vaccine
RSV is a highly contagious virus that causes infections of the lungs and breathing passages. For most people, RSV is just a nasty cold. But for some babies and older adults — particularly those with underlying health conditions — it can be extremely dangerous and even life-threatening.
Among adults aged 65 and older, RSV is responsible for 60,000 to 160,000 hospitalizations, and approximately 14,000 deaths each year in the U.S. Usually, it causes mild, cold-like symptoms that can be treated with over-the-counter medication and rest. But when RSV makes its way down into the lungs — as it can with people who have reduced immunity thanks to age or chronic health conditions — it can cause lower respiratory tract disease, or LRTD. This often manifests as a wet cough, difficulty breathing and lower oxygen saturation levels, requiring supplemental air as treatment. It can also cause life-threatening complications like pneumonia or make existing conditions worse.
The newly FDA-approved RSV vaccines — Arexvy and Abrysvo — came about for a few reasons. First, the technological and scientific advances made while searching for a COVID vaccine have opened up a new world of immunization possibilities. And secondly, there was an unprecedented surge in RSV infections in 2022 as people began re-entering a mostly maskless daily routine. In November of last year, the RSV hospitalization rate for older adults was 10 times higher than usual, and doctors predict something similar happening again this winter season.
Both vaccines function a lot like the flu shot; they introduce an inactivated RSV protein into the body, where it fuses to host cells and stimulates the immune system to recognize the actual RSV virus if/when it encounters it. They have both been shown to have over 85 percent efficacy against LRTD and severe illness, and are thought to be preventative for up to two years.
When Should I Get Vaccinated?
Short answer: now.
Long(er) answer: Current CDC guidelines allow for all three vaccines to be administered simultaneously. You can choose to get them all at once and therefore maximize your protection, or you can opt to get them individually over several visits to reduce the amount of discomfort from possible side effects. As always, consult with your health care provider to see what they recommend for you.