With COVID-19 hospitalizations rising and flu and RSV on the horizon, experts say it’s time to boost up your immunity ahead of the fall and winter season. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions.
What shots are available?
COVID: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone 6 months and older get the new updated COVID-19 monovalent vaccine, which targets the XBB 1.5 Omicron strain and is expected to be effective against currently circulating variants.
Flu: CDC also recommends that everyone 6 months and older get an annual flu shot, “with rare exception” (i.e., if you’ve had a severe allergic reaction to a flu vaccine in the past, or if you’ve had a life-threatening reaction to any ingredient in a vaccine in the past).
RSV: A vaccine targeting respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) has been approved for adults age 60 and older. Monoclonal antibody products (which are not vaccines) are also available to protect infants younger than 8 months old. In August, the Food and Drug Administration approved an RSV vaccine for pregnant women that can safeguard newborns when given between weeks 32 and 36 of pregnancy, but the CDC hasn’t issued guidance on it yet.
Can you get multiple shots at once?
Experts say there’s no problem with getting your COVID and flu shots at the same time. Research shows there’s only a slightly higher chance of experiencing side effects such as pain at the injection site or fatigue when getting COVID and flu shots simultaneously, and there’s no decrease in benefit.
“If it's convenient to get them both at the same time, get them at the same time,” Dr. Robert Murphy, executive director of the Havey Institute for Global Health at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life.
Because the RSV vaccine is new, there isn’t much information on how it might interact with flu and COVID vaccines. Some research suggests the RSV and flu vaccines produce lower levels of antibodies when given together, “but those levels are probably still high enough to protect people from the viruses,” the New York Times reported.
Which arm should you get your shots in?
It doesn’t matter which arm you get your vaccines in; you can choose to have multiple shots in the same arm, or one shot in each arm.
“Most people will choose to get it in their non-dominant arm,” Dr. David Buchholz, senior founding medical director of primary care at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. “Really, it’s just whatever you prefer.”
Is there a time of day that’s best to get vaccinated?
One observational study found that the COVID vaccine’s effectiveness improved when given around midday as opposed to the evening. Another study of adults age 65 and older found that getting the flu shot in the morning instead of afternoon enhanced antibody response.
Experts say it really comes down to personal preference; though if comfort is a consideration, Buchholz says you may want to think about getting your shots in the morning. Fatigue — a common side effect of the COVID vaccine — usually hits around 12 hours after getting the shot, “so if you get it late in the morning, it might be an easy way to fall asleep and then [when you] wake up the next morning that fatigue might actually might be gone,” Buchholz says.
He adds: “Also, if you can do it on a Friday — assuming you don’t work on Saturdays and Sundays — that’s probably also a good idea.”
Should you get your vaccines now, or wait till later in the fall?
If you were recently infected with COVID, you may want to wait a few months. But otherwise, experts say there’s no reason to delay. We’re currently in the middle of a COVID uptick, and Murphy and Buchholz say it’s not true that flu immunity will “wear off” by the end of the season if you get vaccinated now instead of later in the fall or winter.
“Everybody six months and older should get the flu and COVID vaccine anytime now, and RSV would come second,” Murphy says. “But you want COVID and flu [vaccines] as soon as possible.”
Any tips for relieving or preventing arm pain?
CDC says over-the-counter (OTC) medicines such a ibuprofen, acetaminophen, aspirin or antihistamines can help with arm soreness, though you shouldn’t take them in advance to prevent side effects because “it is not known how OTC medicines might affect how well the vaccine works.”
Continuing to use and move your arm after the shot can also keep things from stiffening up, and applying a cool wet washcloth can help relieve pain or swelling.
Where can you get vaccines?
Despite the fact that the COVID public health emergency has ended, we should still expect to find COVID and flu shots in the same places as years past, including:
Urgent care centers
While bigger institutions and hospital systems may get their COVID vaccine supplies earlier, Buchholz says that in the next few weeks, they should be available everywhere, including at smaller practices and independent pharmacies. The RSV vaccine, however, may be less ubiquitous.
“The thing to know about the RSV vaccine for ages 60 and older is that most pharmacies have it, [and] small doctor’s offices may not have it,” Buchholz says. “So your better bet is with a pharmacy.”
For children, vaccine availability may vary. Some states allow pharmacies to give vaccines to small children, while others have age cutoffs. In any case, pediatricians and family medicine doctors are a safe go-to.
Are vaccines free? What if you don’t have insurance?
With insurance: For flu and COVID, “almost all insurance and Medicare and Medicaid do pay for the vaccine,” Murphy says. For RSV, Buchholz says that “Medicare will pay for RSV vaccine under the Part D benefit at a pharmacy.”
Without insurance: Contact your local health department, which often has programs that give free vaccines to people who otherwise can’t afford it. Some public health clinics may also provide vaccines free of charge.
Do you need to bring your COVID vaccine card with you?
Those little cards we received early in the pandemic to show proof of vaccination don’t really matter anymore. But as with any medical record, experts say it may still be a good idea to hang on to that info.
If you’ve lost your COVID vaccine card and want to replace it, you can contact the location where you got your vaccine to request a new card or copy of your vaccination record. You can also contact your state health department’s immunization information system; while they can’t give you a new card, they can provide a digital or paper copy with your vaccine info.