Health insurance can keep you flu free

Mary Lou Jay

Have you had your flu shot this year? Unless you enjoy the thought of suffering through several days of fever, coughing, sore throat and body aches, getting vaccinated against the flu should go to the top of your must-do list.

Paying for flu shots

Don't let the cost of a flu shot stop you from getting your family vaccinated against the illness. If you have health insurance, there's a good chance you won't have to pay a thing. The federal health care reform law requires health insurance policies that began after March 23, 2010, to cover certain preventive treatments -- including flu shots -- without charging a co-pay or a deductible. Plans that started before this date may or may not cover flu shots for free.

If you don't have insurance (or if you have a plan with a high deductible), you can save money by getting a flu shot at a retail clinic. Instead of paying for an office visit with your doctor, you'll just pay for the shot itself -- CVS' Minute Clinic, for example, offers seasonal flu shots for under $30.

Who needs a flu shot?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone older than 6 months get the flu vaccine each year. A flu shot is especially important for people in high-risk groups, including:

  • Pregnant women.
  • Children under age 5 (and especially those under 2).
  • People over 50.
  • People who live in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes.
  • People with chronic medical conditions like diabetes or cardiac disease.

Health care workers, caregivers and those who live with people in high-risk categories also should get vaccinated, according to the CDC.

If you're a parent, make sure your children are vaccinated; the flu can be especially dangerous for young children. CDC figures show that between September 2010 and August 2011, nearly 120 children under age 18 died of the flu. Almost half of them (46 percent) were less than 5 years old. About half of all children who died of the flu had no previous health issues that would have complicated their illness.

Getting vaccinated doesn't ensure that you won't get the flu, however. There are many strains of the flu virus, and although the CDC and the vaccine manufacturers research the types most likely to occur each year, they aren't always right. But even if you do get the flu, the chances that you'll develop serious complications are lower if you've had the vaccination.

Protective measures

You also can reduce your risks of contracting the flu in the first place by taking some basic preventive measures. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water or with alcohol-based rubs if water isn't available. Keep your hands away from your eyes, nose and mouth.

If you do get the flu, do everyone a favor and stay home until you've been without a fever for at least 24 hours. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze to avoid spreading the virus. If you're in a high-risk category for the flu, contact your doctor immediately if you suspect you have it. Prescription antiviral medications may decrease the severity of your symptoms and prevent serious complications.