The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say everyone age six months and older should get an annual flu vaccine. But for people with heart disease, the precaution is especially important; it could be life saving.

Most people who get the flu suffer from a mild illness and can recover in less than two weeks. However, some people, like those with heart disease, are more likely to suffer flu-related complications. For example, people with congestive heart failure may see their condition worsen, a change triggered by the flu symptoms. These complications can result in hospitalizations and, in the worst cases, death.

What is the flu vaccine?

Each year, researchers identify the three influenza viruses that will likely cause the most disease during the upcoming season. The seasonal flu vaccine is developed to protect against these specific flu strains. The vaccine causes the body to build up antibodies that provide protection against infection.

There are two types of vaccines: the flu shot, a killed virus that is given with a needle; and the nasal-spray flu vaccine, made with live, weakened flu viruses given via a nasal spray.

Can it make me sick? Won’t I just get the flu anyway?

Many people avoid the flu vaccine because they’re afraid it might make them sick, but the CDC says the flu shot cannot give you the flu. The most common side effects from a flu shot are a sore arm and maybe a low fever or achiness. The nasal-spray flu vaccine might cause congestion, runny nose, sore throat, or cough. If you do experience them at all, the CDC says these side effects are mild and short-lived.

Others don’t get the shot because they’ve gotten it before and still got sick. If this happened to you, there are several possibilities: you were exposed to a non-flu virus; you were exposed to the flu before your vaccine or before it took affect (usually two weeks); or you were exposed to a flu virus that was very different from the ones included in that year’s vaccine.

When should you get the vaccine?

In the United States, flu season usually begins in October and can last until May. It takes about two weeks after vaccination for your body to develop antibodies that provide protection against influenza, so it’s best to get vaccinated as soon as the seasonal vaccine becomes available in your community. The vaccine doesn’t wane if you get it early; it protects against the included strains for the whole season.

The CDC says vaccination in the early fall is best. Vaccination before December usually ensures your body will have an immune response before flu activity is typically at its highest in January or February. But it’s not too late if you’ve waited past then, either. As long as the flu is circulating in a community, the vaccine can still be effective.

Who should get it?

While everyone should get the vaccine, the CDC says it’s especially important the following people do so because of their high risk for developing flu-related complications:

  • Children between age six months and five years, especially those younger than two years old
  • Pregnant women
  • People age 50 years or older
  • People of any age who have certain chronic medical conditions (including heart disease)
  • Those who live in a nursing home or other long-term care facility
  • People who live with or care for those at high risk for complication from the flu, including those listed above, healthcare workers, and caregivers or people with contact to children less than six months old (too young to be vaccinated).

Who shouldn’t get the flu vaccine?

You should NOT be vaccinated if you have:

  • a severe allergy to chicken eggs
  • had a severe reaction to an influenza vaccination
  • developed Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) within six weeks of getting an influenza vaccine
  • a moderate-to-severe illness with a fever (they should wait until they recover to get vaccinated)

If you’re still unsure about getting a flu shot, follow up with your primary care provider for more information.

Do you get a flu shot? Why or why not? Share in the comments below.