Health Matters: Flu Vaccine in the Age of COVID-19
I think we can all agree that this year has included a lot of crummy surprises—a pandemic threatening our health, wildfires and earthquakes threatening our lives and property, and political polarization threatening our friendships. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but if people don’t get the flu shot, 2020 could get even worse. The double whammy of COVID-19 and the flu could knock down even the hardiest among us, and a bad flu season could quickly overwhelm local hospitals.
I know some people don’t typically get a flu shot. They tell me they never get sick, or they don’t like needles or they are scared of allergic reactions or they just don’t believe it works. Well, it does work. It saves tens of thousands of lives every year, and the chances of any problems from the vaccine are minuscule compared to the benefits. Sometimes people feel a little fatigue or muscle soreness for a day or so after they get the flu shot. That’s not the flu; it is your body building immunity to it. It’s actually a good sign. It means the vaccine is doing its job.
Unlike COVID-19, which we are still figuring out, influenza (the virus that causes the flu) has been around for a long time and scientists have studied it extensively. Although there are several strains of influenza, they generally cause similar symptoms: high fevers, body aches, headaches, and fatigue. Some strains also include vomiting and diarrhea. Basically, the flu makes you feel like you’ve been hit by a truck. It is not just a bad cold.
Most people can make it through the flu with rest, plenty of hydration, and Tylenol. However, the very young and very old are at risk for more serious complications, as are pregnant women and people who are medically fragile because of chronic health conditions, cancer, and other medical issues.
I have been vaccinated for the flu every year for more than 20 years. Every medical provider I know also gets vaccinated annually. If it weren’t safe and effective, we wouldn’t bother.
This year more than ever, it is critical that we all get vaccinated against the flu. The vaccine is safe and recommended for almost everyone over six months of age. With a surging pandemic, we need to do all we can to protect ourselves and the most vulnerable among us. We also need to protect our first responders and health care professionals, and make sure our healthcare resources and hospital beds are available for when other medical emergencies arise. Preventing hospitalizations from the flu is something everyone should prioritize this year. The flu shot is a great way to do this.
From everything we know about COVID-19, we can assume it will continue to spread until there’s a vaccine for it. This will likely make flu season especially dangerous for those people who get both infections at once or one after the other. A significant lung infection like the flu can temporarily deplete the body’s resources and may make it harder to fight off other infections, including COVID-19. And COVID-19 may cause long-term lung problems like scarring that could become more problematic if you were to get the flu. Heaven help the poor souls who get both at once.
If you feel miserable and are wondering which virus you have, it may be hard to tell. The illnesses share several symptoms—fever, cough, body aches, sometimes gastrointestinal problems and nausea to name a few. If you are experiencing these symptoms and you have questions or concerns about how to best care for yourself, please contact your medical provider. Many health centers can provide virtual visits over the phone. If you have difficulty breathing, a high fever that doesn’t come down with Tylenol, an altered mental state, or other concerning symptoms, seek medical attention right away.
Again, prevention is key when it comes to flu. Get the flu shot. Wear a mask in the presence of others. Sanitize your hands regularly and follow other health guidelines to keep yourself and your loved ones safe and healthy this year. For young children, it’s best to schedule a flu shot with their medical provider. For teens and adults, they can usually get a flu shot at the local pharmacy. The shots are usually available starting in September. Please, for your own health and safety, for those you care about, and for those who care about you, get a flu shot this year.
Suzanna Sherer is a primary care provider at MCHC Health Centers—a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.