The Flu is Having a Comeback – and you Should Get a Cheap or Free Flu Shot
This article has been updated for the current 2023 flu season to cover where to get the cheapest or free flu shots this year, as we head into the heart of flu season. And, yes, you should get a flu shot this year (in addition to full free COVID-19 vaccination and boosters that offer some Omicron variant protection). After a historically slow flu season in 2020 with most Americans wearing masks due to COVID-19 precautions, the flu had resurgence in 2022, with public masking and social distancing requirements being significantly lower than in recent years. That trend should continue this flu season.
The CDC estimates highs of 13 million flu illnesses, 6.1 million medical visits, 170,000 hospital visits, and 14,000 deaths from October of last year to mid-June of this year. On average, approximately 5% to 20% of U.S. residents get the flu and more than 200,000 Americans are hospitalized for flu-related complications each year. The CDC estimates seasonal flu deaths from recent flu seasons in the United States at a low of 12,000 (2011-2012) to an estimated high of 52,000 (2017-2018), with hospitalizations in the hundreds of thousands each year. Add that burden on top of the COVID-19 overload, and spread of the flu virus could have a compounding negative effect on the U.S. health care system.
While the flu vaccine does not offer any protection against COVID-19, that does not make getting the flu vaccine any less essential. Like COVID-19, the influenza virus attacks the lungs, and it is possible to contract both the flu and COVID-19 simultaneously (often referred to as “flurona”), which could complicate recovery and increase the risk of hospitalization and possibly even death for any individual unfortunate enough to contract both the flu and COVID-19 at the same time.
Aside from community, family, co-worker, and personal health benefits, getting a flu shot is also a smart financial decision. Consider the cost of all of the medicine and related treatments you will be buying if you do get the flu, the lost income from work if you are paid hourly wages, or the lost personal days that could have been banked for future time off of work. And all of that is on top of the potentially astronomical costs of doctors visits and/or hospitalizations.
To further make the case for getting the flu vaccine, the dominant flu strain over the last year, at over 98% of infections, has been A(H3N2), and protection against this strain is included in the quadrivalent flu vaccines. And, did I mention that flu shots are very cheap (and often free)?
Where to Get a Free Flu Shot
There are a number of ways that you may be able to get a free flu shot:
- Your Employer: My previous employer offered free flu shots to all employees and their families, as the flu has been estimated to cost $34 billion in lost productivity for businesses, per year. Check with your employer to see if they will be offering free flu shots this year and tout the potential cost savings for them to do so, if they are not.
- Your Doctor (paid through your Health Insurance): Indirectly, through your employer or if you have a public health insurance exchange, your health insurance is required to pay for your flu shot without any co-payment, due to Affordable Care Act coverage rules (when given by an in-network provider). If you are over age 65, Medicare Part B covers the cost of flu shots. And most state Medicaid agencies cover the cost of flu shots for Medicaid participants as well.
- An Urgent Care Clinic (paid through your Health Insurance): see the previous bullet as all of the same information applies.
- Your County Health Department or Community Health Center: Many county health departments and community health centers offer free flu shots to children and the elderly, and it is increasingly being offered to everyone. The only downside is the potential for long waiting lines. Check out your county or city’s website for more information.
- Your Library: This one is surprising, but a number of public libraries offer free flu shots. Check with yours.
- Your School, College, or University: Many educational institutions now offer free flu shots to their students. Check to confirm.
- The VA: Veterans who are eligible for VA health care can get a free flu shot at any VA facility.
The Cheapest Flu Shots at Popular Pharmacies and Retailers (Prices and Promotions)
If you don’t have health insurance, employer, health department, or other source that offers free flu shots, there are a number of retailers offering discounted or cheap flu shots for the 2022-2023 flu season. And if you do have health insurance that covers flu shots (most do), it might even be more convenient to get a free flu shot at one of these pharmacy locations than going to your doctor. Most offer online scheduling.
Pharmacies usually do not offer their flu shot prices online, but thankfully I have a phone and made a few calls. Here are the cheapest flu shot prices that I found, as of September 23, 2022 (note that prices and availability may vary by location and insurance co-pays may apply):
- Costco flu shot price: $19.99 (standard quadrivalent vaccine), with membership discount. FLUAD High-dose flu shot price (for age 65+): $49.99, with membership discount. FluMist Nasal Mist spray flu vaccine price: $24.99, with membership discount. Discounts/Promotions: Costco is the cheapest flu shot retailer on this list, but prices listed are for members. Non-membership prices may be higher. Flu shots are one of the services you can get from Costco without a membership.
- Sam’s Club flu shot price: $19.99 for “Plus” members or $34.99 for “Standard” members (standard quadrivalent vaccine), with membership discounts. FLUAD High-dose flu shot price (for age 65+): $74.99 for “Plus” members, $81.76 for “Standard” members, with membership discount. FluMist Nasal Mist spray flu vaccine price: $24.26 for “Plus” members, $30 for “Standard” members, with membership discount. Discounts/Promotions: prices listed are for Sam’s Club members. Non-membership prices may be higher. Flu shots at the Sam’s Club Pharmacy is one of the services you can get from Sam’s Club without a membership.
- Walmart flu shot price: $36.88 (standard quadrivalent vaccine). FLUAD High-dose flu shot price (for age 65+): $81.76. Discounts/Promotions: not available.
- Rite Aid flu shot price: $45.99 (standard quadrivalent vaccine). FLUAD High-dose flu shot price (for age 65+): $89.99. Discounts/Promotions: not available.
- CVS flu shot price: $49.99 (standard quadrivalent vaccine). FLUAD High-dose flu shot price (for age 65+): $94.99. Discounts/Promotions: you can get a $5 off $20 coupon for a subsequent purchase.
- Target flu shot price: $49.99 (standard quadrivalent vaccine. FLUAD High-dose flu shot price (for age 65+): $94.99. Discounts/Promotions: $5 Target gift card off a $20 purchase if you get a flu shot at a Target CVS pharmacy.
- Meijer flu shot price: $53 (standard quadrivalent vaccine). FLUAD High-dose flu shot price (for age 65+): $103.34. Discounts/Promotions: not available.
- Publix flu shot price: $57 (standard quadrivalent vaccine). FLUAD High-dose flu shot price (for age 65+): $95. Discounts/Promotions: Publix occasionally runs a $10 gift card promotion, with a flu shot purchase.
- Safeway flu shot price: $60.99 (standard quadrivalent vaccine). FLUAD High-dose flu shot price (for age 65+): $107.99. Discounts/Promotions: Safeway usually runs a 10% off groceries (up to $20) on your next visit promotion when you get a flu shot at a Safeway pharmacy.
- Walgreens flu shot price: $66.99 (standard quadrivalent vaccine). FLUAD High-dose flu shot price (for age 65+): $102.29. Discounts/Promotions: Earn $10 Walgreens Cash rewards on your next in-store purchase of $1+ for every vaccine you get at Walgreens.
- Kroger flu shot price: $85 (standard quadrivalent vaccine). FLUAD High-dose flu shot price (for age 65+): $90. Discounts/Promotions: Kroger occasionally runs a “$5 off your next grocery purchase” promotion when you get a flu shot at one of their pharmacies.
Flu Shot Price Notes:
- The standard quadrivalent flu shot is designed to protect against four different flu strain viruses; two influenza A viruses and two influenza B viruses and is now the standard offered everywhere.
- The trivalent flu shot option is not being carried this year (all shots will be quadrivalent).
- The FLUAD quadrivalent flu shot is recommended for those age 65 and over, as it includes an adjuvant designed to strengthen, broaden, and lengthen the duration of the flu vaccine response.
- Even though I have listed the 65+ FLUAD quadrivalent prices here, everyone in this age group is eligible for free flu shots if they are enrolled in Medicare, Part B.
- In prior years, the CDC found that the FluMist quadrivalent nasal mist spray option was not as effective compared to the flu shot and it was pulled from the market. However, it is being offered at a few retailers and public health departments, with the disclaimer that certain populations should not use it.
If none of these pharmacies have locations by you, check out the CDC’s vaccines.gov flu shot vaccine locator website, which will provide a map of providers near you that offer flu shots.
Flu Shot Effectiveness Rate & Time Before it Takes Effect
I have often wondered how long it takes for a flu shot to take effect. According to the CDC, it generally takes about 2 weeks for the flu vaccine to protect you from catching the flu virus.
The flu shot effectiveness rate is widely disputed. There are many variables – age, severity of a virus in a given season, new strains, unreported cases, and even effectiveness by manufacturer – that make it hard to nail down an effectiveness rate. I’ve seen effectiveness rates reported as anywhere from 40% to 90%.
Regardless of effectiveness rate, there is no risk in getting the flu from a flu shot, so sign me up. It is recommended that everyone 6 months of age and older get a flu shot. And it is recommended that children between 6 months and 8 years of age get 2 shots per season.
Can you Get the COVID & Flu Vaccine at the Same Time?
Yes, there is no conflict between the COVID-19 and flu vaccines. You can get both within the same season, and even at the same time. However, it is recommended that if you get both the flu and COVID vaccinations at the same time, you get them in separate arms as the same arm can result in double the soreness. There has even been discussion about combining the two vaccines together at some point.
And, yes, you can get infected with the flu and COVID-19 at the same time too. All the more reason to get both vaccines.
Cheap or Free Flu Shot Discussion:
- Are you getting a flu shot this year? Why or why not?
- Did I miss any locations for cheap flu shots or ways to get a free flu shot? Share in the comments!