5 Things You Need to Know About Flu During COVID-19

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Flu season is getting under way again this fall, as it does every year. The difference this year – as with so many other aspects of life – is that flu season will take place against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some things remain the same though: Getting the flu vaccine can help you avoid getting the flu. And if you do get the flu – what’s called breakthrough infection – you will likely experience milder symptoms if you’ve had the flu vaccine.

Flu can be a severe or even deadly illness, especially for older adults, very young children, pregnant women and people with certain chronic conditions or who are immunocompromised.

Getting the flu vaccine this year also can help decrease the burdens on the health care system and free up resources for those who need medical care.

We talked with UH infectious disease specialist Robert Salata, MD, about what you need to know about the flu and flu vaccine this year. Here is what he had to say.

It’s More Important Than Ever To Get the Flu Vaccine

“I would say this is a season where we really have to push this issue because we may be talking about a ‘twindemic’ – an epidemic of both flu and COVID-19, especially during the respiratory viral season, which generally starts at the end of November through as late as April.

“You want to protect yourself from other viral infections. If you’re protected from flu because you’ve had the vaccine, that takes influenza out of the equation in terms of multiple possibilities occurring.

“For people who have breakthrough infection despite getting the vaccine, influenza is generally milder, and they are hospitalized less often and die less frequently.

The Flu is Different for Older Adults

“For vulnerable populations like the elderly, one of the things that happens after getting influenza is they develop cardiac problems like heart failure and are in the hospital and sometimes die of that. So the flu can be the trigger for other complications that could occur or that they already have.

“But keep in mind, especially with the elderly, even if they have breakthrough influenza despite getting the vaccine, it’s generally milder. That is not to say it couldn’t be severe. But if we can diminish the risk from influenza to any extent in the context where COVID-19 is still going on, I think that’s the important concept that people need to consider as well.

“Something new this year in terms of the flu vaccine is that we give higher doses now to people who are age 65 or older. A group of UH physicians has been involved in studying that, and it led to a 24 percent decrease in hospitalization, deaths and severe disease, because generally the older you are, the less immune response you have to a vaccine like influenza.

“The Centers for Disease Control recommends that older adults receive the flu vaccine in September and October."

The Symptoms of Flu and COVID-19 Can Overlap

“There are a few distinguishing features. However, the differences are fairly subtle. Because the symptoms and signs of influenza and COVID-19 are much overlapping, eliminating the possibility of influenza as much as we can is also important.

If you have had COVID-19, you should get the flu vaccine after you’ve fully recovered from COVID-19 because recovery from that disease can be associated with lingering symptoms in many individuals for months on end. So we want them to be recovered from that and then to get the flu vaccine thereafter."

Flu Can Turn Deadly

“There’s around 30,000 people each year in the U.S. who die of influenza and its complications. Influenza is often more frequently associated with secondary bacterial infections, especially pneumonia. That does not seem to be part and parcel of COVID-19, fortunately."

Children Should Receive the Flu Vaccine for Themselves – and Others

"Children do not have severe disease, generally speaking, with influenza. But just like with COVID-19, they can be the reservoir for passing this on to others, including the aged, their grandparents and those with underlying health conditions. This can have significant consequences."

Related Links

It’s more important than ever to get your flu shot this year. This year’s flu season will overlap with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the two illnesses have similar symptoms. Learn more about the types of flu, flu symptoms and other information, such as when to see a doctor.

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