November 15, 2021
By Lisa Ryan
This year, your flu vaccine may be more important than ever. According to The Center for Disease Control (CDC), both flu viruses and COVID-19 will be spreading this fall and winter1, and it is possible to catch both illnesses at once.
Having either COVID-19 or influenza is tough on the body, and having both at once presents increased challenges, said internal medicine physician Janet Huang Fitzpatrick, MD.
“They are both infectious diseases and if you catch either one by itself, generally speaking you’ll feel really bad as your immune system tries to fight the illness,” Fitzpatrick said. “If you catch both at the same time, they’re really just going to make you feel even worse. You immune system is going to have a harder time because it’s not fighting just one infection, it’s trying to fight two.”
Symptoms of the flu include fever, cough, sore throat, nasal congestion, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue; vomiting and diarrhea are possible and more common in children. Symptoms of COVID-19 include fever or chills, cough, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting and diarrhea.
COVID-19 and influenza are caused by different illnesses and require different vaccines; it is safe to receive a COVID-19 vaccine or booster dose on the same day as a flu shot, according to the CDC. Vaccinating against each illness increases a person’s chances of experiencing less severe illness, according to health experts.
The most serious cases of either COVID-19 or influenza can lead to hospitalization or death, but Fitzpatrick said that preventing the spread of these illnesses is crucial even for people who would more likely be able to recover at home.
“In a typical year, anywhere between 20,000 and 70,000 people in the United States die of influenza,” Fitzpatrick said. “Certainly the elderly, children and immunocompromised people are at greater risk of death, but everyone is at risk of contracting an illness that can be debilitating even if it doesn’t kill you.”
The CDC recommends vaccinating against the flu by the end of October each year, before cases rise in mid-November. But Fitzpatrick said patients who missed that deadline should still get a flu shot.
“It’s not too late to get a flu vaccine in November, December, January or February, because we do see flu cases into the end of March,” Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick said that last year, flu cases were less common because mask-wearing and social distancing practices were more strictly enforced, and more people were working from home to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. With more people returning to in-person activity, and with shifting guidelines around masking and social distancing, some of the protections from flu that were in place last year are waning.
“Many people did not get vaccinated for the flu last year because they were at home, but this year, it’s more important than ever that people get the flu shot to protect themselves from that respiratory illness,” Fitzpatrick said. “The flu is still a debilitating disease.”
Fitzpatrick said experts expect that this year’s flu season could affect people more than in past years, in part because immunity to an illness wanes if you skip an annual booster. Even people who are being diligent about mask-wearing and social distancing need a flu vaccine.
Fitzpatrick said she understands some patients’ vaccine hesitancy, but she is available to answer their questions in order to help them understand the safety and importance of vaccines.
“Influenza is a preventable illness, and when people get the flu, they can feel very sick and pretty miserable for 10 to 14 days,” Fitzpatrick said. “We can help keep people from feeling so sick, and from spreading their illness to others – that’s really what vaccines are all about: preventing illness when we can.”
1: “While it’s not possible to say with certainty what will happen in the fall and winter, CDC believes it’s likely that flu viruses and the virus that causes COVID-19 will both be spreading at that time.”