It's one of the most dreaded outings for my family each year: the trip to our local pharmacy for flu shots.
"Why??? I don't want to get a flu shot!"
My kids are old enough to know why, yet they still complain and fuss. Nevertheless, we go, and I know, with absolute certainty, we are making the right choice.
This year, more than ever, the flu shot is important. Flu shots are recommended for most people with MS and for nearly everyone else. (Many of us with MS or certain other conditions should get the inactivated flu shot, not the nasal spray). I urge you - even if you don't usually get the flu shot, you don't think you need it, you "never get sick," you think it's not worth the trouble, you think it will make you sick – to please get a flu shot this time.
I recently had an opportunity to answer questions from a reporter about the flu shot, and I am sharing my answers below to help you better understand the current concerns around flu and the coronavirus pandemic and to clear up some misconceptions.
I will get some hate mail for this, but I will take the heat. Flu shots continue to be one of our most important tools to improve public health. A flu shot could save your life.
How can people navigate the flu season while we are in the midst of a pandemic?
I don't think we have a precedent for anything like what we could face if we have a bad flu season while COVID-19 continues to pose a real and significant threat. Hospitals in many parts of the U.S. already have been strained and sometimes overwhelmed in the last few months by COVID-19. To layer a bad flu season on top of the pandemic, which many experts expect could worsen this winter, would be catastrophic in some communities.
We do think for individuals who become sick with influenza, the coronavirus poses a greater risk. Influenza is likely to make them more vulnerable and susceptible to complications from a coexisting infection with COVID-19.
To reduce these risks, we all have to double down on the measures we know will lower the risk of spreading both COVID-19 and the flu. Fortunately, social distancing, face masks, and hand hygiene will help with both. Getting a flu shot is another very important way to stay healthy and lower the burden on our hospitals this winter.
One small silver lining to the pandemic is that if we follow recommendations to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our communities, we will also reduce influenza. Some countries in the southern hemisphere, like Australia, where it is late winter, are enjoying a much better flu season than usual, largely due to the restrictions on social interactions and other measures in place to combat COVID-19.
Why is it so crucial to get the flu shot as it pertains to coronavirus?
The flu shot will not prevent COVID-19, and it is, in a good year, only about 60% effective at preventing flu. But it is one relatively easy, inexpensive way we can stop influenza from becoming more widespread, causing more people to get sick and fill up our hospitals. We know the flu vaccine reduces lost work/school days, hospitalizations, and deaths. This year, more than ever, while we wait for a vaccine against COVID-19, we need to do all we can to keep from overburdening our healthcare system.
What month is ideal to get the flu shot and why?
September and October are usually the best months to get the flu shot. Ideally, one should be vaccinated before flu season (which usually peaks between December and February). Getting vaccinated before September may lead to reduced immunity later in the season, especially among older adults. But even if immunization occurs earlier or later than the recommended time frame, it can still be beneficial and protective.
One exception to the preferred time is for children who need two doses of the vaccine. These are kids 6 months to 8 years old who have not previously received at least two doses of flu vaccine in the past (prior to the current flu season). Children who need two doses of the flu vaccine should receive the first dose of the vaccine as soon as it becomes available. The second dose is then given at least four weeks later to improve vaccine effectiveness.
What age groups should get the flu shot and why? What about those who worry about getting the flu from the shot?
Flu shots should be given to virtually everyone over 6 months old, every year. Although mild side effects can occur, flu shots do not, cannot, cause the flu. Only rarely are they contraindicated. Flu shots are safe, and they save lives and prevent hospitalizations.
If you get the flu right after getting the flu shot, the vaccine is not to blame. Keep in mind it usually takes about two weeks for your body to develop antibodies and be protected from the flu after receiving the shot. And if you are someone who never gets sick, count yourself lucky and get the shot anyway. Even if you think you don't need the shot, you should get vaccinated to reduce your risk of spreading flu to others, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
With very rare exceptions, EVERYONE should get the flu shot EVERY year. It's one of the most important things you can do for your own health and that of your loved ones.
How can people distinguish flu symptoms from COVID-19 symptoms?
LD: Distinguishing flu from COVID-19 is often not possible without viral testing. Both can cause fever, cough, body aches, fatigue, headaches, and other symptoms. Early in the pandemic, many test sites actually tested for both because influenza was still circulating, and the symptoms of each viral illness overlap too much to reliably differentiate the two. Right now, influenza is not circulating widely in the U.S., so if someone presents with classic "flu symptoms," COVID-19 is far more likely. Once flu season starts, though, we will need testing, in most cases, to know which virus we are dealing with.
Why do people need a flu vaccine every year?
Influenza, the virus that causes flu, changes quickly, allowing it to spread and survive. The vaccine each year has to be adjusted to keep up as the virus evolves. In addition, our immunity against flu decreases in the months after receiving the vaccine, so getting another flu shot each flu season is recommended. One of the unknowns about the much-anticipated coronavirus vaccine is how long immunity will last. We don't know yet how often we will have to be vaccinated to protect us against COVID-19.
What can parents do to protect children who are too young to get vaccinated?
Only infants under 6 months old are too young to get vaccinated. To protect these children, parents should make sure they themselves get vaccinated as well as everyone else in the household, any childcare providers, or anyone else who has regular contact with the infant.
Of course, regular hand washing is important for anyone in close contact with the infant. Breastfeeding, as well, may provide some protection and offers many other health benefits.
Do you still have questions? CDC is a great resource for information on flu shot and other vaccines.
Please share your comments below. I'd love to hear from you!