The flu shot is an essential move to protect your respiratory system during the COVID-19 pandemic, but keep in mind the vaccine will not protect you against the coronavirus.
Even if you hate shots, this is the year to get protection from the flu.
Be clear: There is no evidence that a flu shot could increase your chance of getting COVID-19; the vaccine specifically for the coronavirus began rolling out in December.
It also won’t protect you from the new coronavirus. For that, you’ll need a different vaccine, which may be coming soon, although the National Institutes of Health has concerns about a side effect in a noteworthy vaccine trial. Your doctor can evaluate those options for you and address any worries.
But amid the fear of COVID-19, let's not forget the flu. Every year millions of Americans fall sick, and, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), hundreds of thousands of flu patients land in the hospital — and between 12,000 and 61,000 people die.
When the flu arrives again this fall, in many communities you may be exposed to the new coronavirus as well. Some of the symptoms are similar, and to protect others, you may need to get tested. The CDC has developed a test that will check for various flus and the new coronavirus at the same time.
It’s possible you could get both illnesses at once, or one after the after, though researchers don’t yet know how likely this will be. For example, you could get the flu and be left more vulnerable to complications from COVID-19 or the other way around.
Do you want to take that chance? Some common conditions — heart disease, diabetes, and obesity — make both the flu and the coronavirus more serious. We don’t know now what the consequences of a pileup could be.
Even if your health is perfect, there’s another reason to steer clear of the flu this year: doctors will be busy fighting COVID-19, which is still causing a delay in treatment for some health conditions, such as heart disease. Just to get tested, you might need to stand in a line down the block, six feet apart from your neighbors. In a bad scenario, your local hospitals could be flooded with COVID-19 patients.
Who is most vulnerable?
The CDC recommends that anyone six months and older get a flu shot. But as usual, it’s especially important for certain groups, including seniors, children under two years old, and pregnant women. Although the flu is usually mild, there is the chance of complications like bronchitis, sinus and ear infections, and pneumonia. The flu can aggravate chronic heart problems or trigger asthma attacks. Diabetes, kidney diseases, liver disorders, a history of stroke, and weakened immune systems make the flu more dangerous.
If you are nervous about vaccines
If the idea of the flu shot makes you nervous — because you have allergies or immune issues or fear the risks of vaccines in general — have a candid talk with your doctor.
You might also ask your doctor or pharmacist which shot to take. This year’s options include:
- Standard dose flu shots
- High-dose shots for people 65 years and older
- Shots made with adjuvant (to create a stronger immune response) for people 65 years and older
- Shots made with virus grown in cell culture rather than eggs
- A recombinant vaccine shot
- A nasal spray called live attenuated influenza vaccine (LAIV)
It’s safest to get your flu shot in September and October but still worthwhile to be vaccinated later, even after January, as viruses may continue to circulate.
How can you use this information?
Maybe the new coronavirus hasn’t been a big issue in your area, or you’ve heard it’s a “hoax” motivated by politics (Sorry, the idea that it’s a hoax is the hoax). Either or both illnesses could be mild for you. But we don’t know. The flu shot is one of the easiest things you can do to protect yourself.
December 14, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN