Getting a Flu Shot Is One of the Most Important Things You Can Do for Your Community This Winter
If the idea of flu season feels overwhelming, there’s a good reason: You’re living through a global pandemic, and that’s tough in its own way. But it’s important to also take action against the flu now, in addition to your COVD-19 precautions—well before you or someone you know comes down with symptoms—because the best way to manage yet another big health risk to many Americans is by being prepared.
Though people can catch the flu at any point of the year, flu season historically occurs in the fall and winter because the viruses that cause it thrive when the air is cold and dry, and are therefore more likely to spread. Symptoms of the flu include, but are not limited to: fever, coughing, sore throat, runny noses, body aches, headaches, and fatigue. Given that those may overlap with COVID-19 symptoms, it’s extra important to stay vigilant, and stay home if you think you’re coming down with something.
The risk for contracting the flu virus is greatest from October to February, which is probably why you’ve been seeing constant reminders to get your flu shot if you can. (You can find where to get a free flu shot by going to the CDC’s Flu Vaccine Finder.) Here, we broke down some of the biggest questions you may have about flu season in the time of coronavirus.
Why is it so important to get this year’s flu vaccine?
It’s always important to get your flu shot, but the coronavirus pandemic definitely makes it all the more crucial to re-up your flu vaccine. Dr. Darien Sutton-Ramsey, an emergency physician in Los Angeles, says the key to weathering this pandemic and flu season alike is prevention.
“Our cognitive bias is that we want to look for a quick fix in treatment. The only thing that has helped us more than anything is prevention: washing hands, socially distancing, and making sure that we can prevent the spread of this virus,” Dr. Sutton-Ramsey told Apartment Therapy. He also warned against potentially overloading already-taxed hospitals and health systems with another potential epidemic. “When we talk about prevention, we also have to talk about preventing other things like the flu,” he said. “The reason why it’s so important to get a flu vaccine is that many people may not realize the operational nightmare that it is to be treating patients during a pandemic of the flu and COVID-19.”
When the novel coronavirus first hit the United States, it caused a massive backlog for hospitals. PPE (personal protective equipment, like masks) ran short, testing wasn’t widely available, and there was just a notable lack of resources for the surge of admitted patients. Even though most people recover from the flu just fine, there is still the very real risk of being hospitalized due to influenza—especially if you or someone you pass the virus to is older or immunocompromised. When we talk about doing our part to slow the spread of coronavirus cases, the same goes for the common flu and how a single breakout can deeply affect those in your community.
“When we look at the outcome of COVID-19, a lot of that peak in the curve of deaths at the beginning was associated with not only the spread of COVID-19, but also the stretching of resources within the hospital,” Dr. Sutton-Ramsey said. “You can imagine when you’re trying to treat a patient with COVID-19, it’s all hands on deck. When you have so many patients, you spread out resources and people. Unfortunately, care quality goes down.” By doing your part to reduce the chances of carrying the virus, infecting other people, and getting sick yourself, you’re acting with your entire community in mind, even if you don’t realize it.
Can I get the flu and COVID-19 at the same time?
Hypothetically, you could get both the flu and COVID-19—though Dr. Sutton-Ramsey says it will likely be incredibly rare to be infected with both simultaneously. Whether it be a game of luck or sheer statistics, it’s still a risk not worth taking.
According to the CDC, around 40 to 45% of Americans have gotten their annual flu vaccine each year for the past 10 years. Even so, people are bound to get sick, but the vaccine certainly helps manage the number of severe cases that require medical assistance.
“The flu vaccine is not 100% effective in preventing disease—we’ve already known this fact—because the flu vaccine is based on a series of scientific predictions on what the flu strain will look like this year,” Dr. Sutton-Ramsey says. “But the idea is that if we give it to as many people as we can, then we will substantially decrease [the amount of people who get the flu].”
A constant challenge for healthcare physicians is the false claim that vaccines make people sick. Despite the disputes from the scientific community, the so-called “anti-vaxxing” movement regularly pushes the false belief that vaccines are dangerous, when they were literally designed to save lives. As Dr. Sutton-Ramsey noted, “We also have to fight the myths associated with the vaccine.” He particularly took time to debunk the false notion that the flu vaccine causes the flu.
“A lot of people will say, ‘The last time I got the flu vaccine, I immediately got the flu,’” he said. “There are two reasons why that could be. Number one: the vaccine is meant to rev up your immune response and your immune response is what makes you feel ill. Now some people, unfortunately, are unlucky. I tell people, ‘You may have gotten flu-like symptoms (like muscle aches and fevers), but it was not caused by the flu vaccine itself.’ The flu vaccine is built, tested, and tried among many people—it does not have a viable flu virus inside of it.”
Which home remedies should I try to prevent the flu?
When looking at flu prevention, it’s equally important to not buy into unfounded claims that promise to boost autoimmunity, or quick-fix “solutions” that usually seem too good to be true on their face. Dr. Sutton-Ramsey recommends staying away from home remedies that haven’t been backed by the CDC, the World Health Organization, or your primary care provider.
“Of course, taking your daily vitamins is important just for your general health,” Dr. Sutton-Ramsey said, adding that taking proven steps to protect your health is doubly crucial during this flu season. “Managing your overall chronic conditions is important to make sure that you decrease your risk of having a comorbid issue during COVID-19. But there’s been no proven home remedies or specific treatments that you can do at home to prevent the flu or coronavirus.” Bottom line: You should always follow the directions when it comes to chemical compounds, and always ask a doctor if you’re unsure.
But the one thing everyone should do is get their flu shot. “The flu vaccine has been tried and tested. We know that it is safe and effective, to the point where if many people get it, it will be helpful,” said Dr. Sutton-Ramsey. As for COVID-19, he urges you to keep up the good hygiene habits you’ve been practicing for months. “Right now, I always advise people to do what we know works, which is social distancing and washing your hands. That saves more lives than any treatment that we have” right now, he added.