By Sean Naini, D.O.
Getting a flu shot has always been an important health precaution, but today, with coronavirus — more commonly known as COVID-19 — continuing to spread throughout the country and the world, it is even more critical.
Everyone six months of age and older, unless their doctor says otherwise, should get vaccinated against the flu annually.
If you have never had the flu shot before, talk to your doctor first, but don’t wait. With flu season approaching and a second COVID-19 wave expected this fall, the time to protect yourself is now.
The COVID-19 Connection
It is important to remember that the flu shot will not protect you from COVID-19.
What it will do is protect you from the flu, or at least lessen its severity should you contract it. If you are 65 or older or have a chronic lung condition, a pneumonia shot is also recommended.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that between 39 million and 56 million Americans became ill with the flu last year. While the vast majority recovered, as many as 740,000 people were hospitalized and between 24,000 and 62,000 died.
This year’s flu season is complicated by the coronavirus.
Consider that if you get the flu and then are later exposed to the COVID-19 or contract them both at once, an already bad situation can become far worse. Your body is already weakened by fighting one illness and adding another serious illness on top of it can increase the risk for complications.
It can be challenging to distinguish the signs of the flu from coronavirus, but getting a flu shot potentially takes out some of the guesswork, making it more likely that you will recognize the symptoms of COVID-19 should you contract the virus.
Common symptoms that COVID-19 and flu share include:
• Fever or feeling feverish/chills
• Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
• Fatigue (tiredness)
• Sore throat
• Runny or stuffy nose
• Muscle pain or body aches
• Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults
Other signs and symptoms of COVID-19, different from flu, may include change in or loss of taste or smell.
You should seek immediate medical attention at the first sign of any of the above symptoms so your condition can be evaluated quickly. If it is the flu, you can potentially be treated for that. If it is COVID-19, the proper steps can be taken so you get treated appropriately and also protect others from being exposed.
The Best Time for a Flu Shot is Now
Flu season generally begins in the fall and runs into spring, peaking between December and February.
It takes about two weeks for your body to build up antibodies to protect you from the flu, so now is a good time to get the vaccine.
The most common form of the vaccine is a standard-dose flu shot, which is typically administered with a needle into the muscle in your arm. Some seasons, the vaccine is available in a nasal spray as an option for children and people who cannot tolerate needles. Older adults may receive a high-dose flu shot, which contains four times the antigen — the part of the vaccine that helps your body build up protection against flu viruses. This increased dose offers older people a better immune response, and therefore, better protection against flu.
It is important to note that the flu vaccine is not an active virus, meaning you cannot get the flu from the vaccine. Side effects of the vaccine are typically mild and may include soreness or redness at the site of the shot, low-grade fever, and aches.
It is also important to note that the flu vaccine does not make you more susceptible to the coronavirus.
In addition to the vaccine, you can protect against the flu – and COVID-19 – by taking the following precautions, as advised by the CDC:
• Avoid close contact with people who are sick. When you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick too.
• If possible, stay home from work, school, and errands when you are sick. This will help prevent spreading your illness to others.
• Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. It may prevent those around you from getting sick.
• Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
• Practice other good health habits. Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at home, work or school, especially when someone is ill. Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat nutritious food.
The CDC also recommends these additional measures to protect against COVID-19:
• Cover your mouth and nose with a mask when around others. Everyone should wear a mask in public settings and when around people who don’t live in your household.
• Stay at least six feet away from other people who do not live in your household.
• Monitor your health daily and be alert for symptoms. Take your temperature and call your doctor if symptoms develop.
While there is not yet a vaccine for COVID-19, you can effectively protect yourself against the flu and reduce your risk for serious complications, by getting a flu shot today.
For more information or to find a physician with Penn Medicine Princeton Health, call 1-888-742-7496 or visit www.princetonhcs.org.
Sean Naini, D.O., is board certified in internal medicine and is a member of the medical staff at Penn Medicine Princeton Health.