As flu season approaches, physicians are urging people to get vaccinated, saying flu vaccinations are especially important this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We asked Nidhi Tiwari, MD, an internist at Rush Copley Medical Center, and Sheba Chiplunkar, MD, an internist at Rush Oak Park Hospital, to help us better understand why.
Influenza is a common and at times deadly virus on its own, killing thousands of Americans a year. Complicating matters this year, we are also up against COVID-19, for which there is not yet an approved vaccine or proven cure.
"The flu vaccine is more important than ever this year to reduce your risk of the flu and to conserve health care resources," Tiwari says. “Since we are expecting another surge in hospitalizations this fall and winter due to COVID-19, it is important to control the flu as much as possible to conserve hospitals’ resources for those with COVID.”
These are some other compelling reasons to get the flu vaccine:
- Staying as healthy as possible can help reduce your risk of COVID-19, which has more serious impacts on those who are fighting other medical conditions.
- Contracting the flu and COVID-19 at the same time could be even more dangerous than having either of these illnesses alone. And because their symptoms are so similar, it’s hard to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone. Delays in diagnosis can mean your condition is more serious by the time you receive treatment.
- According to Chiplunkar, getting the flu can weaken your immune system, which could make you more susceptible to getting COVID-19 and make it harder for you to fight off.
Who should get the flu vaccine — and when
While researchers are still developing a COVID-19 vaccine, we already have a safe, reliable vaccine for preventing the flu. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics both recommend the vaccine for everyone except babies younger than six months.
The flu vaccine is more important than ever this year.
The vaccine is even recommended for those who have had COVID-19 and are no longer symptomatic. If, however, you have suspected or diagnosed COVID-19, whether or not you have symptoms, you should wait to have your flu vaccine until after your isolation period ends. This is so you don’t potentially expose others to the virus.
If you are at a higher risk for COVID-19, you may want to take extra precautions, like high-dose flu shots. These contain four times more antigen — the part of the vaccine that helps your body build up protection against flu viruses — than standard-dose vaccines.
"I would recommend for anyone age 65 and up to get a high-dose flu vaccine," Chiplunkar says. Older adults, in particular, are at risk of having more severe symptoms of both the flu and COVID-19.
And to protect you for the entire flu season, Tiwari advises getting vaccinated in September or October “It takes approximately two weeks for the shot to be fully effective, and flu season can begin as early as September,” she explains.
The flu vaccine provides protection for a minimum of six months but wanes after that, which is one reason it’s important to get vaccinated every year.
Is it safe to get the flu vaccine?
Both doctors assure that it’s safe to get a flu shot at doctors’ offices and hospitals.
“Enhanced safety measures are in place to protect you while you’re getting the shot — and to protect your health care team as well,” Tiwari says.
As for the shot itself, like any injection, vaccines can cause side effects. Flu vaccine side effects, which are generally mild and go away on their own within a few days, may include the following:
- Soreness, redness and/or swelling at the injection site
- Muscle aches
If you experience these side effects, don’t be alarmed: It does not mean the vaccine has given you the flu.
In fact, there’s literally no way you can get the flu from the flu vaccine. As the CDC explains, the vaccine contains either an inactivated virus, meaning the virus is no longer infectious, or a particle designed to look like a flu virus to your immune system.
We’re already protecting ourselves from COVID-19 by wearing masks, practicing social distancing and paying attention to hand hygiene. To make sure you’re protected this flu season, schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor and/or pediatrician to get flu shots for you and your family.