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Getting the flu can wreak havoc on your finances

  • Fewer than half of adults, 43.3 percent, got a vaccine in the 2015-2016 flu season.
  • At the same time an estimated 24.5 million were stricken with the flu, resulting in 11 million medical visits, 308,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 deaths.
  • The annual direct cost for hospitalizations and outpatient visits is an estimated $10.4 billion.

There's something even scarier than Halloween ghosts and goblins lurking around the corner: The flu.

Every year around this time, the ever-evolving influenza virus begins descending upon the Northern Hemisphere, bringing misery to the millions of Americans who end up suffering from it.

On top of the wretched physical symptoms it causes — including fever, chills, muscle aches, cough and fatigue — the cost of getting the flu is generally greater than a dose of prevention.

Yet most people apparently don't mind the risk. In the 2015-2016 flu season, just 43.3 percent of U.S. adults got the flu vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For those under age 18, the rate was 59 percent. (Click on CDC chart below to enlarge.)

At the same time, an estimated 24.5 million were stricken with the flu, resulting in 11 million medical visits, 308,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 deaths.

The financial impact? An estimated annual $10.4 billion in direct costs for hospitalizations and outpatient visits for adults.

"Getting the flu shot should be a no-brainer," said certified financial planner Chris Chen, wealth strategist with Insight Financial Strategists in Waltham, Massachusetts. "The low or free cost of the shot is one of the great deals of everyday living, given what it can cost if you get the flu."

In the 2015-2016 flu season, the CDC estimates that the flu vaccine prevented about 5.1 illnesses, 2.5 million flu-induced medical visits and 71,000 hospitalizations. (Click on graphic to enlarge.)

While some people use the term "flu" to describe just about any illness, influenza is a contagious respiratory illness that can cause mild to severe illnesses, sometimes resulting in hospitalization or even death. Some people are more likely to get severely sick from it, including older Americans, children under age 5, people with certain long-term health conditions and pregnant women.

For anyone with health insurance, the flu shot is typically free due to Obamacare, regardless of whether you get it at your doctor's office or in another setting. However, some plans might only allow you to get the shot at specific locations so it's worth checking first with the pharmacy or your insurer.

The larger pharmacies — i.e., Walgreens, CVS, Walmart Pharmacy — accept most insurance plans. Without coverage, the retail price of the shot depends on your age and recommended vaccine formulation.

At Walgreens, for instance, a shot that most adults and children would get runs $31.99 if you have no insurance. The price for the shot recommended for people age 65 and older is generally $59.99.

If you have no insurance and the price of a shot is prohibitive, check with your local health department. Colleges and workplaces also often offer a free way to brave the needle.

Most people who get influenza recover anywhere from within a few days to less than two weeks. Others, however, develop complications such as sinus infections, bronchitis or pneumonia.

"Flu shots can be especially important for those at higher risk, but they're just as important for those of us that come in contact with those people," said Laura Barry, a CFP and principal and director of wealth advisory at Bronfman Rothschild in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. "It could cost them a lot more."

The average daily cost of a hospital stay is $2,271, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The range is broad, from $3,368 in Oregon to $1,218 in South Dakota.

Even if you get a mild version of the flu and need only rest, over-the-counter treatments and chicken noodle soup, missing work could cost you.

"You protect yourself with insurance for other risks. The flu shot is like insurance." -Chris Chen, wealth strategist with Insight Financial Strategists

The average hourly wage of American workers is $26.55, according to recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For those who don't get paid for sick days, that's $212.40 (pre-tax) for each eight-hour workday missed.

"The lower the income, the higher the impact of missing work will be on your finances if you're not getting paid for it," Chen said.

Even if you get paid when absent, your sick days are likely limited. The average worker gets seven paid sick days after one year of service. The flu can easily eat up much of that in one fell swoop.

Remember, too, that anyone you're responsible for should also get a flu shot. If you are a parent or caregiver and your charge gets ill, it will mean more workdays missed.

A flu shot being administered in Concord, California.
Getty Images

Also, other contagious illness that circulate throughout the year — i.e., the common cold, a stomach bug — could cause you to miss work, and they can't be prevented with a shot.

For the self-employed, getting the flu can be more personally costly, given that the lost productivity is borne by you rather than a separate employer.

While it's impossible to say with certainty whether the 2017-2018 flu season will be brutal or not, and the vaccine is not a 100 percent promise of heath, the flu shot is your best possible protection.

"You protect yourself with insurance for other risks," Chen said. "The flu shot is like insurance."

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