With the pandemic still in full swing, health officials are advising people to make a flu vaccine a top priority this year. Flu activity typically peaks between December and February, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but flu activity can last as late as May. Experts are warning of a “twindemic,” or the overlap of flu season and COVID-19 when hospitals and medical professionals can be overwhelmed with sick people.
“It’s especially important this year to get your flu shot to avoid catching the flu while treatments and immunizations for COVID-19 are still in development,” Amy Mullins, MD, medical director for quality and science at the American Academy of Family Physicians, tells Treehugger. “The flu is still a very serious illness. If a person were to contract COVID-19 and the flu simultaneously, not only will it be miserable, but it could be deadly.”
People who get the flu vaccine also help promote herd immunity, Mullins says. When enough people in an area get vaccinated against a contagious illness, fewer people get sick as it lessens the chances for the disease spreading through the community.
When Should You Get Vaccinated?
Some pharmacies and doctor’s offices were offering flu shots as early as July. But getting vaccinated that early could mean you have less protection later in the flu season, especially if you’re older.
But if the flu vaccine is available now where you live, it’s not too early to get it.
“You should get the vaccine as soon as it becomes available each fall, but you can also get it any time throughout the flu season – usually until March. The sooner the better, so you can be protected longer,” says Mullins.
The CDC recommends you get vaccinated by the end of October. September and October are typically the best months for full seasonal coverage.
You might need to start earlier for kids who need two doses of the vaccine in order to be protected. Those need to be administered about four weeks apart.
Who Should Get Vaccinated?
The CDC recommends that nearly everyone 6 months old and up should get a flu vaccine, with few exceptions. It’s especially important for health care workers, pregnant women, seniors, and people with underlying medical conditions such as asthma and heart disease.
Because some vaccines are made using chicken eggs, people with egg allergies have often avoided the vaccine. The CDC says that people with mild or moderate egg allergies can get any flu vaccine that is otherwise appropriate for their age and health. Those with severe egg allergy should be vaccinated in a medical setting under a doctor’s supervision in case they have a severe allergic reaction. There are also two egg-free vaccines available.
What Are the Flu Vaccine Options This Year?
The flu vaccine is changed each year based on the different strains of flu viruses that health experts believe will be circulating that upcoming flu season. Typically influenza A viruses are more common than influenza B viruses, but both cause infections every season and are covered in the flu vaccine.
The vaccine is available as a flu shot and a nasal flu spray. The flu mist is approved for people who are age 2 through 49 and who aren’t pregnant. People with certain medical conditions, such as a weakened immune system, should not opt for the spray. There is a high-dose vaccine available for those age 65 and older.
The CDC monitors information about the viruses during flu season and provides information about effectiveness while flu season is underway.
Is the Flu Vaccine Safe?
Before being approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), vaccines must undergo rigorous clinical trials. With the flu vaccine, some people might experience mild side effects like pain at the injection site, muscle aches, and slight fever.
Much research has examined the potential harmful effects of the flu vaccine. The most noted research has centered around Guillain–Barré syndrome (GBS), an inflammatory disorder that can cause muscle weakness and paralysis. Studies have found that about one in every 1 to 2 million people who received the swine flu vaccine in the 1970s had GBS. The incidence rate with the regular influenza vaccine (made with different strains) has been less clear since then, according to the World Health Organization.
As far as the risk of getting COVID-19 while getting the flu vaccine, the CDC has released safety guidelines for all providers giving vaccinations. Check to make sure your provider is sticking to these safety protocols.
The steps that medical experts recommend to avoid getting COVID-19, like social distancing, wearing a mask, and washing your hands, may also be effective in helping to slow down the spread of flu, Mullins points out.
Although it has yet to be peer-reviewed, a June 2020 study found that people with COVID-19 who had received a recent flu vaccine were 8% less likely to need intensive care treatment than those who hadn’t received a vaccine. They were 18% less likely to need a ventilator and 17% less likely to die.
How Can You Tell the Difference Between COVID-19 Symptoms and Flu Symptoms?
Although caused by different viruses, the symptoms of the novel coronavirus and the flu can be similar. They include:
- Fever or chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Fatigue (tiredness)
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle pain or body aches
- Vomiting and diarrhea (more common in children)
One big difference is that COVID-19 symptoms may include loss of taste or smell. Because symptoms are so similar, experts say it’s important to reach out to your doctor or get tested if you are sick.