The 2017-2018 flu season is looking like one of the worst in years. Forty-six states are reporting widespread flu activity, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. From Oct. 1 through Dec. 30, 3,927 people were hospitalized due to the flu. The highest hospitalization rates were among adults older than 50 and children younger than 5.
In other words, run — to get vaccinated; an annual flu vaccine is the best way to prevent the flu, the CDC says. But how do you go about getting vaccinated if you don't have health insurance? And if you're unlucky enough to catch the flu, how can you treat it?
Preventing the flu without health insurance
You may have heard the flu vaccine isn't as effective this year. There are many flu viruses, and the predominant version this season is called A(H3N2). In past seasons, this virus has been associated with more hospitalizations and deaths compared to other flu viruses. Vaccines also tend to be less effective against A(H3N2) than other influenza viruses.
However, that doesn't mean vaccines are completely ineffective. The CDC still says vaccination is the best way to prevent the flu. Plus, said Brian Staiger, a pharmacist and founder of PharmacistAnswers.com, studies show vaccinations help make symptoms less severe if you catch the flu.
Uninsured people shouldn't need to pay much for a vaccine. While a doctor's visit may prove costly, pharmacists can also give you the vaccine. A shot from a retail pharmacy should cost $20 to $30, Staiger said.
There are also plenty of free ways to boost your immune system and prevent disease, like washing your hands, eating a healthy diet and getting enough sleep.
Treating the flu without health insurance
The flu can knock you out. I've had it once, and it was gross. My chest hurt, the lymph nodes in my throat swelled like a frog and I was sweating like a murder suspect.
Luckily, it went away with plenty of hydration and rest, which shouldn't cost much. For most people, that's the only treatment necessary, though an inexpensive over-the-counter drug like Tylenol may help with aches, Staiger said. (Note: Consult a doctor for your best course of treatment.)
However, for high-risk cases — including people who have been hospitalized, people with especially severe symptoms, young children and people over 65 — the CDC recommends antiviral medication. This will cost you.
"Those antiviral medications are extremely expensive if you were to pay out of pocket," Staiger said.
Tamiflu is the most commonly prescribed antiviral for the flu. It's also sold generically as oseltamivir and is available at most pharmacies, costing at least $108 for a dose pack, according to GoodRx, a website that compiles prescription drug prices. Staiger recommended that uninsured people ask their pharmacists if they offered a discount card or coupon. Nearly all major chains offer some kind of discount on generics, he said.
You can also get coupons online at websites like GoodRx. For example, GoodRx has a coupon that lowers the price of oseltamivir from $108 to $57.44 at my local Duane Reade.
The flu is nasty, and this season seems especially bad. But even without insurance, you don't have to go broke fighting it.
P.S.: You can get health insurance
Open enrollment is closed on Healthcare.gov, but you can still buy an individual health insurance plan for 2018 in a few states. Check our state-by-state guide to health insurance to see if an exchange is still open where you live. If you've missed the deadline, you may also qualify for a special enrollment period. Special enrollment periods are generally tied to a big life event like a marriage or birth of a baby. Aside from that, you can consider a short-term health plan, off-exchange plan (some private insurers sell policies outside of open enrollment), limited benefits plans or another alternative to traditional insurance. You can find out more about these plans here.