The COVID-19 pandemic continues to linger, powered by different variants, so healthcare providers across the country are bracing for another winter of treating both the flu and COVID-19.
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While social distancing and mask-wearing resulted in an unusually quiet flu season several years ago, that wasn’t the case last year. Doctors are also anticipating a busier flu season this year.
“Influenza is a very serious disease, and during a normal flu season, around 40,000 or more people die from it,” says infectious disease doctor Susan Rehm, MD. “So, with any preventable disease, we should do everything we can to protect ourselves.”
Getting your flu vaccine is vital to not just keeping you and your family healthy, but also relieving our over-burdened healthcare system. But with COVID-19 vaccines also widely available, there may be more questions about the timing of vaccines.
To learn more about the importance of getting both the flu and COVID-19 vaccines, we talked to Dr. Rehm, along with infectious disease specialist Kristin Englund, MD, and infectious disease clinical pharmacist Kaitlyn Rivard, PharmD.
Why getting the flu vaccine is so important
First of all, Dr. Rehm notes it’s just good practice to get a flu shot every year. Dr. Englund adds that the vaccine’s prevention-geared properties are key.
“When people get influenza or get the flu, it’s not only just the symptoms that they have, like a cough, fever and an infection in the lungs,” she says. “It taxes the body and really puts a lot of stress on all of the other systems.”
That can cause some serious complications, Dr. Englund continues. “You can have a heart attack or even a stroke as a side effect from having influenza. So, we want to make sure that we’re keeping everybody healthy from all of these complications.”
Dr. Rehm says that a flu shot is especially important this year because both COVID-19 and the flu will be circulating.
“We’re going to have influenza and COVID-19 coexisting and there’s a lot of overlap between the symptoms,” she notes. “We also anticipate that there will be some people who have COVID-19 and influenza at the same time, which could be difficult.”
Part of what would make such a scenario so calamitous, Dr. Rehm says, is that our national healthcare system could be inundated in some regions. “We’ve seen problems in various places because of past COVID variant surges, and if we add influenza on top of that, it could overwhelm our capacity.”
When to get a flu shot
Dr. Rivard and Dr. Rehm advise getting a flu vaccine as soon as it becomes available. Many healthcare providers, including Cleveland Clinic, began offering the flu vaccine at the beginning of September.
Does the flu vaccine interfere with the COVID-19 vaccine?
Dr. Rivard and Dr. Rehm assure that the flu vaccine doesn’t interfere with the COVID-19 vaccine.
If you haven’t been vaccinated against COVID-19 yet, you can get the flu vaccine alongside any authorized COVID-19 vaccine, including a booster dose.
“All available COVID-19 vaccines can be given at the same time as the flu vaccine,” says Dr. Rivard. “If someone is coming in for their flu shot and they’re eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine but haven’t received it yet, we can offer that. In fact, both the CDC and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommend co-administering almost any two vaccines together.”
She adds that there are very few instances in which certain vaccines can’t be administered at the same time, noting that children often receive multiple vaccines during one visit to their pediatrician.
And there’s no concern about overloading our immune systems with multiple vaccines, notes Dr. Rehm. “We’re exposed to things that stimulate our immune system all the time,” she says. “Our immune system is constantly responding to various exposures even if you don’t realize it.”
Yes, you need both vaccines
While both the flu and COVID-19 are respiratory diseases with overlapping symptoms, you still need a specific vaccine to protect you against each virus.
In other words, the flu vaccine won’t protect you from COVID-19 and the COVID-19 vaccine won’t protect you from the flu.
And while no vaccine is 100% effective in keeping you from getting sick, as breakthrough COVID-19 infections have shown, these vaccines can often lessen the effects of the disease. “In many cases, being vaccinated helps reduce the severity of the illness,” says Dr. Rehm.
Will getting both vaccines at once enhance any side effects?
If you get both your flu vaccine and a COVID-19 shot at the same time, you shouldn’t see any enhanced side effects. “We see a higher degree of side effects with the COVID-19 vaccines, particularly the second dose of the mRNA vaccines,” says Dr. Rivard. “That’s our immune system building up a response.”
“Someone who receives both vaccines together will probably still see those expected side effects — achiness, soreness where you received the shot, tiredness — but nothing more than they would see if they got one of the vaccines on its own,” she says.
Keep up with doctor appointments
Even though you might live in an area where you have an elevated risk of contracting COVID-19, it’s important that you still make it to a healthcare provider to receive your flu vaccine.
“Healthcare facilities are taking extra precautions to make the environment safe for people who come in,” Dr. Rehm notes. “And the reality is that the risk of not going in for the vaccine is higher than going in for the vaccine because it is such a safe environment.”
That goes equally for kids, too. Just as it’s important to keep their immunization schedule on track despite the pandemic, it’s also crucial to get them vaccinated for the flu. “It’s important for children to get the flu vaccine, too, because the circulation of flu in children, if nothing else, puts adults at risk, too.
“Influenza is a serious disease and it’s unpredictable,” she continues, “and otherwise healthy children are unfortunately hospitalized and die every year because of it. So, even for normal, healthy children, it’s really important to get vaccinated every year.”
Finally, Dr. Rehm adds, “When young children get the flu vaccine for the first time, they need two doses separated by a few weeks in order to boost their immunity to the point that they’re protected against influenza. Check with your doctor for the specifics.”
Symptoms of the flu and COVID-19
Because many respiratory viruses, including COVID-19 and the flu, share overlapping symptoms, it can be hard to tell the difference between which one you might have based on symptoms alone. Some of the overlapping symptoms include:
- Sore throat.
- Muscle aches.
Why you should get tested
According to Dr. Rehm, “People who think they have a respiratory illness like COVID-19, influenza or respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) should call their healthcare provider and see if testing is appropriate.”
Testing is important not just for identifying which disease you have, but it also enables doctors to see what specific illnesses are circulating in a community.
And some tests can identify as many as a dozen different respiratory viruses, says Dr. Rivard. The caveat, though, is that these tests are usually reserved for children. “Children have many more viruses they’re exposed to that could cause infection compared to adults,” she says.
Similar tests can be used for adults, says Dr. Rehm, but, again, they’re typically only used in certain circumstances. “Not every patient with a respiratory illness needs to be tested for a dozen viruses,” she says. “Those tests are primarily used for hospitalized or immunocompromised adults.”
The importance of social distancing
Two reasons that the 2020-2021 flu season was such a quiet one: social distancing and improved hygiene, says Dr. Rehm. “The use of face masks, social distancing and paying more attention to hand-washing all impacted the lower rates of flu and other respiratory viruses.
“All of these things are still part of our strategy going forward, not just to prevent COVID-19 and the flu, but other viruses, too,” she adds. “Having robust vaccines adds to these levels of protection.”
Seriously. Get a flu shot!
One reason it’s so important to get your annual flu shot (and the COVID-19 vaccine) is: Protecting yourself is a lot easier than treating these illnesses.
“There are some treatments available for the flu and treatments we have for COVID-19 are evolving,” Dr. Rehm says. “But to avoid the disease altogether or to only have a mild case because you’ve been vaccinated is much better than trying to treat it. Prevention is best.”