Influenza, also called the flu, is a contagious respiratory illness that affects your lungs, nose, and throat.
The viruses behind influenza are notoriously contagious. They infect between 8% and 11% of Americans in a given year.
Flu viruses circulate most often during the cold winter months of the year.
For that reason, doctors consider November through March “flu season,” though in reality, people can catch influenza in the fall and spring, too.
Fortunately, healthcare professionals have developed a vaccine to help people combat the viruses and avoid becoming sick.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that anyone over six months of age, including young children, teens, adults, and older patients, get the vaccine, also called a flu shot, every year.
Children under six months old cannot get the vaccine and are considered high risk.
If you are around babies, get a flu shot to keep their health protected.
You do not need health insurance to get a flu shot in the United States.
In this article, I’ll tell you more about the flu, including its symptoms and causes.
I’ll explain more about how the flu shot works, and how you can get free flu shots without insurance.
What is the Flu?
Influenza (the flu) is a contagious illness caused by influenza viruses.
An estimated 1 billion people are infected by the flu worldwide every year.
Most experience mild to moderate symptoms that impact their nose, throat, head, and lungs.
Occasionally, people develop cases that become more severe.
Those at the highest risk for severe illness tend to be young children, geriatric patients, and immunocompromised individuals (like pregnant women and people with existing health conditions).
The CDC estimates that during the 2019-2022 flu season, there were 16 million flu-related medical visits to medical clinics and doctor’s offices, approximately 380,000 flu-related hospitalizations, and 20,000 deaths related to the flu in the United States alone.
The flu is spread through the airborne transmission of the tiny droplets humans produce when they sneeze, cough, or talk.
When an infected person’s droplets land inside someone else’s nose or mouth, the influenza virus can spread into their body and make them sick.
In addition, when an infected person coughs or sneezes, it can contaminate the surfaces around them.
When someone touches a contaminated object or surface nearby and then touches their nose, mouth, or eyes, the virus can travel from the contaminated surface into their body and make them ill.
After the flu virus enters your body, you usually begin to feel ill within two days.
While the severity of the illness ranges, most people experience at least a handful of common flu symptoms.
- Body aches
- Eye pain
- Fatigue or exhaustion
- Persistent cough
- Runny nose
- Sore throat
- Vomiting or diarrhea (particularly in younger children)
If you or your child has the flu and begins to develop more severe symptoms, call your doctor or go to the nearest hospital for medical assistance.
Severe symptoms include:
- Blue lips, nails, or skin
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing or speaking
- Dizziness or vertigo
- Worsening of pre-existing medical conditions like heart failure, asthma, or diabetes
- Severe muscle pain or weakness
Most healthy people who are infected with the flu can pass their illness to others for at least a day before they begin to experience symptoms.
Patients with the flu continue to be contagious for up to seven days after becoming ill.
If you suspect you have the flu, avoid close contact with friends, family members, and coworkers to protect them from getting sick.
Stay home from work or school, grocery stores, and community events until you are sure you are no longer contagious.
There are two contagious viruses, influenza A and influenza B, to blame for seasonal flu epidemics or flu season.
They travel from person to person through the airborne droplets that people produce when they talk, cough, sneeze, or laugh.
People can catch the flu when infected droplets land on their mouth or nose and make them sick.
They can also accidentally expose themselves to the flu when they touch a contaminated surface or object and then touch their own eyes, lips, or nose afterward.
Once you have the flu, your body develops antibodies that can protect you from future invasions for a time.
Unfortunately, influenza viruses evolve so quickly that sometimes the body cannot effectively fight them off.
The best way to protect yourself against the flu is to get a yearly vaccination.
Flu Shot Basics
The flu shot works by introducing several inactive flu strains into your body, so your immune system can develop antibodies against those strains.
That way, if your body comes in contact with them again, it can fight off the infection.
In the United States, the seasonal flu shot is a quadrivalent vaccine, meaning it has four types of inactive flu viruses inside—two influenza A viruses, and two influenza B viruses.
Experts choose these four strains because they believe they will be the most likely to circulate in a given year.
Because immune protection only lasts for so long, and because circulating virus strains can vary from year to year, healthcare providers suggest getting a new influenza vaccination before every flu season.
Can You Get Free Flu Shots Without Insurance?
If you are underinsured or do not have coverage—and you are willing to pay out of pocket for a flu shot—there are plenty of options available to you.
The cost of the flu shot changes depending on the area, but most prices range between $20-70 per injection.
Depending on vaccine availability, your primary care doctor’s office, local pharmacy, or local health center should be able to offer you a vaccine appointment.
Some big-box retail pharmacies, like CVS Pharmacy and Walgreens, often offer walk-in vaccination services, too.
Finally, check with your employer to see if your workplace provides access to an annual flu shot.
Many inoculate employees to reduce the number of sick people forced to take leave during flu season.
Where to Find Free Flu Shots Without Insurance
If you have health insurance, it will likely cost you little or nothing to get a flu shot.
With rare exceptions, health insurance companies tend to cover the cost of the influenza vaccine because reducing the risk of flu illness is considered vital to a community’s health and welfare.
If you do not have private insurance, it’s still possible for you to get a flu shot without paying a premium fee.
Many county health departments, qualified health centers, community health centers, and doctor’s offices offer free or low-cost vaccines to eligible patients.
In addition, local churches and other community organizations often organize special events that include free flu vaccine services on-site for people in need.
Public health clinics often offer low-cost vaccine programs for patients concerned about the flu, and urgent care facilities may also give free flu vaccines to people without medical insurance.
Ultimately, your ability to receive a free or reduced-price flu shot will depend on where you live and what services are nearby.
Call your healthcare provider or local public health department to get specific information about whether you qualify for a free vaccination, and where you should go to get one.
When to See a Medical Provider
Getting vaccinated is crucial to keep you and your family healthy during flu season.
If you are looking for information about where to get free flu shots without insurance, call your doctor or local pharmacist to find out more about where you can get vaccinated and how much it might cost you.
If you already have flu symptoms, the vaccine will not help you get over the symptoms faster if you get it during the time of symptoms. Instead, take steps to care for yourself.
Rest, drink plenty of fluids, avoid close contact with others, and manage your symptoms with over-the-counter medication until you begin to feel better.
If you feel like your symptoms are unusually severe or getting worse, contact your doctor so that they can evaluate your symptoms and recommend a treatment plan to alleviate your discomfort.
Since there are various strains of flu that circulate each flu season, it can still be beneficial to get a flu vaccine, even if you think you were already infected with one of the strains of the season.
Flu symptoms can sometimes become life-threatening and require immediate medical attention.
If you or your child has the flu and begins to experience chest pain, difficulty breathing, blue skin, dizziness, dehydration, seizure, extreme muscle tension, go to your nearest hospital immediately or call 9-1-1.
How K Health Can Help
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Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed, text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.
Frequently Asked Questions
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
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Who should and who should NOT get a flu vaccine. (2021).
Who needs a flu vaccine? (2021).
Global Influenza Strategy, 2019-2030. (n.d.)
Seasonal Incidence of Symptomatic Influenza in the United States. (2017).