What You Need to Know About Vaccines This Fall

Along with a dip in temperatures and a rise in pumpkin spice-flavored fare, the hallmarks of fall include respiratory illnesses such as the flu and RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus. Cases of COVID-19 are also increasing.

This year’s flu shot is now available, and there’s a new vaccine for RSV. Plus, another COVID-19 booster is out. We talked to UNC Health family medicine physician Sarah Ruff, MD, to find out what you need to know about these vaccines.

Get a Flu Shot Every Year

An estimated 9 million Americans got the flu and thousands of them died from it during the 2021 flu season, the latest data available. The flu shot can help keep adults and children out of the hospital and in school and at work.

“Adults and children 6 months and older are now eligible to get this year’s flu shot, which is updated to work against the predicted flu variants for this flu season,” Dr. Ruff says.

Flu viruses can change from one season to the next. Also, the body’s immunity to flu viruses, whether acquired naturally or through a vaccine, will decline over time. Getting the shot every year is the best way to stay ahead of the virus.

“Each year, there is a new flu shot that is designed to target that season’s flu,” Dr. Ruff says. “It’s not always 100 percent, which is why you can sometimes still get the flu even after you get a flu shot, but it does decrease your risk of getting the flu. And if you do get the flu, you’re less likely to end up with severe symptoms, and you’re less likely to end up in the hospital.”

This year’s flu vaccine shots are now available at pharmacies, hospitals and doctors’ offices.

“Check with your doctor’s office about Saturday and drive-thru clinics this fall,” Dr. Ruff says. “There also may be mobile clinics in your community or at your child’s school.”

There’s a New Vaccine for RSV for Older Adults

RSV is a common winter virus that usually causes mild cold-like illness but can be dangerous for young children and older adults. Babies have not built up the immunity to fight it, and older people start to lose immunity as they age and are unable to fight off infections as well as they did when they were younger.

The Food and Drug Administration recently approved two RSV vaccines for people age 60 and older, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises talking to your doctor to determine whether it’s right for you.

“We recommend shared clinical decision-making for this vaccine—this means talking to your provider about the risks and benefits of getting the RSV vaccine,” Dr. Ruff says. “It’s more likely to benefit people 60 and older who have chronic medical conditions, such as chronic lung disease, chronic heart disease and diabetes, or who are immunocompromised.”

There are two brands of the RSV vaccine: one made by GlaxoSmithKline and another made by Pfizer.

“For both, you just get the vaccine one time at this moment—they are not yearly vaccines,” Dr. Ruff says. “Both decrease the risk of severe illness from RSV.”

The FDA has approved the Pfizer version for pregnant people between weeks 32 and 36, but it is not yet a CDC recommendation.

“The vaccine is not for the pregnant mom. It’s for the baby who is about to be born, like the Tdap vaccine that you get in pregnancy,” Dr. Ruff says. “And we give this so that the baby would be protected against RSV. But so far, it’s not an official recommendation yet.”

There is no RSV vaccine for babies, but children younger than 8 months and those 8 to 19 months who are at risk of severe disease can receive an advance antibody treatment to prevent severe illness.

“Parents may want to ask their pediatrician about it,” Dr. Ruff says. “It’s so new that not all doctors have it yet.”

A New COVID-19 Booster Is Available

A reformulated COVID-19 booster is now available. It is designed to target the original COVID-19 strain and XBB, an omicron subvariant that began to circulate last summer.

“The new booster is supposed to target the more updated strains of COVID,” Dr. Ruff says. “I have recommended my patients wait for the new booster, since last year’s bivalent booster is not going to do much for the current strain because it doesn’t match. Wait for the new booster, and wear your mask if you’re feeling at risk.”

Just like with the flu shot, the COVID-19 vaccine and booster are designed to keep you from getting severely sick and being hospitalized.

“You’re less likely to end up with severe symptoms,” she says. “We know now that when you get the COVID vaccine, you still can get COVID, but it’s usually less severe when you are vaccinated, and that’s our goal. It’s a bummer if we get sick, and it’s annoying, as we have to stay out of work and school, but we don’t want to die or end up in the hospital, and these vaccines help decrease the risk of those things.”

You Can Get All Your Vaccines at the Same Time

If you decide to wait to get your flu shot until you get the new COVID-19 booster and you are eligible for the RSV vaccine, it is safe to get all of them together.

“It is OK to get these vaccines at the same time,” Dr. Ruff says. “Although when you get more than one shot on the same day, you may feel more of a reaction. You could feel achy and need to go to bed when you get home.”

If you need a vaccine, talk to your doctor. Need a doctor? Find one near you.