Health officials are sounding the alarm about the coming flu season because they’re concerned about the potential of having both COVID-19 and influenza - each with serious and sometimes deadly complications - circulating at the same time. This is especially concerning as hospitalizations due to COVID-19 are on the rise.
First some good news. You can help protect yourself from flu with a flu shot. It’s safe and provides the best means of protecting yourself and those around you. Health experts are urging the public to get a flu shot as soon as possible because October is when flu season typically begins. Keep in mind that it takes about two weeks to develop the antibodies which provide protection against flu.
There is as yet no vaccination for COVID-19. But the social distancing, mask wearing and hand sanitizing we do to protect ourselves from COVID-19 may also help slow the spread of flu, and that’s more good news.
The difficulty ahead is that it’s hard to tell the difference between COVID-19 and flu without being tested due to the overlap of symptoms. Both flu and COVID-19 can cause fever, aches, fatigue, sore throat, runny/stuffy nose and shortness of breath. Stomach upset and diarrhea are less common but can also occur. COVID-19 can sometimes cause loss of taste and smell.
If you have any of these symptoms, contact your health care provider to determine if you need diagnostic testing and next steps to take. Early diagnosis is essential because prompt antiviral treatment of flu can decrease complications and speed your recovery. Early diagnosis of COVID-19 is also essential for proper treatment and so you can quarantine and close contacts can self-isolate.
It’s also unknown how flu and COVID-19 may interact. Both viruses can cause dangerous inflammation in the lungs that can fill the airspaces with fluid, making it difficult to breathe and resulting in pneumonia.
Studies show that up to 20 percent of people who have COVID-19 also have influenza A and B and other respiratory viruses. There’s still much that to learn about the COVID-19 virus and how it might interact with influenza. What is known is that a flu shot decreases your likelihood of getting these viruses together. Your vaccination also affects the community as the protection you receive from immunization, indirectly affects the health of your close contacts. By decreasing the likelihood that you become ill (and therefore infectious), you also decrease the chances of passing on illness to your family, loved ones, and colleagues. Additionally if one does contract influenza despite vaccination, being vaccinated has been shown to help decrease the severity of the disease course.
Regardless of how healthy you are, getting a flu vaccine carries a much lower risk of harm than catching the actual flu virus. The flu can cause serious infections in such high-risk populations as infants, elderly adults and those with underlying medical conditions. It is also a common cause of pneumonia.
So while flu symptoms might have simply sent you to bed for a few days in the past, this year it’s imperative to get a flu shot, contact your health care provider if you have flu or COVID-19 symptoms, and take the necessary steps to protect yourself and those around you.