The Flu Shot and COVID-19: Here’s What You Need to Know

September 2020

COVID-19 may be dominating the news, but don’t forget about the flu. This year, it’s more important than ever to get your annual flu shot.

Getting the flu shot doesn’t just protect you from getting the flu, it also helps prevent the spread of influenza to vulnerable people (including infants, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems) who are more likely to suffer complications or end up hospitalized.

Here are answers to five common questions about flu shots during the COVID-19 outbreak:

What is the difference between the flu and COVID-19?

Many of the common symptoms of the flu and COVID-19 are the same. These include fever, fatigue, body aches, a cough, sore throat, headache and a runny nose. That’s why, if you experience these symptoms, it’s important to contact your doctor to see if you should be tested or monitored for COVID-19.

While many of the common symptoms are similar, a peer-reviewed study published in the International Forum of Allergy & Rhinology found that there is one set of symptoms that’s far more common with COVID-19: loss of taste or smell. In fact, Dr. Carol Yan, co-author of the study, said in a press release, “Based on our study, if you have smell and taste loss, you are more than 10 times more likely to have COVID-19 infection than other causes of infection.”

While the diseases share many symptoms, a key difference between the two is their underlying cause. COVID-19 is caused by infection with one particular coronavirus, the novel 2019 coronavirus, also known as severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus  2 (SARS-CoV-2). Influenza, on the other hand, can be caused by several different strains of influenza virus.

Most importantly, the two diseases differ in the availability of a preventative vaccine. While there is an annual flu shot that protects against the strains of influenza included in the vaccine, there is not yet a vaccine against the novel coronavirus.

Will the flu shot protect me against infection with the coronavirus?

No. The flu shot will not protect you again the coronavirus.

COVID-19 is caused by a different type of virus than the influenza viruses that cause the flu. The flu shot will only protect you against influenza, and even then, it only offers protection against certain strains of influenza.

You may hear the annual flu shot described as a trivalent or quadrivalent vaccinetri for three, and quadri for four. This does not mean the vaccine protects you against three or four different diseases. Rather, it means the vaccine protects you against three or four different strains of influenza.

Because there are many different strains of influenza, the exact strains the vaccine protects against vary from year to year, depending on which strains researchers think are most likely to be prevalent in the upcoming flu season.

While the flu shot will not protect you against coronavirus, it won’t make you more susceptible either.

If the flu shot won’t protect me against COVID-19, why is it so important to get a flu shot this year?

Local COVID-19 outbreaks can cause a surge in demand for urgent care centers, ERs, hospitals and ICUs. Getting the flu shot will help keep you and those around you healthy during a potential surge in demand for healthcare in your community.

Can I have the flu and COVID-19 at the same time?

Yes, you can have both at the same time. Because flu season was winding down in Europe and the U.S. by the time the COVID-19 outbreak hit, researchers don’t yet have a lot of data on the impact of co-infection with flu and COVID-19.

However, one small study on patients at a hospital in Wuhan, China, at the start of the pandemic found that co-infection with the flu did increase the risk of certain serious complications. COVID-19 patients who also had the flu were more likely to experience cardiac injury or a cytokine storm (an over-reaction of the immune system that can lead to death).

Who should get their flu vaccine during the COVID-19 pandemic?

The flu shot is especially important for people at high risk of complications from the flu, including young children, people over 65, pregnant women, and people with asthma, COPD, cancer, heart disease, diabetes or HIV. But since no one is immune from potential complications and everyone is capable of spreading influenza to vulnerable people, anyone who is six months of age or older should get the flu shot unless they have a compelling medical reason to skip it.

Fortunately, there are few people who should not get the flu shot. Infants younger than six months of age cannot get a flu shot. People who have had severe, life-threatening reactions to the flu vaccine or any of its ingredients should also skip the shot.

However, the CDC recommends that you talk with your doctor if you have an egg allergy or a history of Guillain-Barr Syndrome (GBS; a severe, paralyzing illness). You may still be able to get the flu vaccine, and your doctor can help you decide whether the vaccine is right for you and how best to proceed.

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