This article was originally featured on the Brigham Health Hub blog.
Contributor: Daniel A. Solomon, MD, is an infectious disease specialist.
Getting the flu vaccine is more important than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic as both the flu virus and the coronavirus are expected to spread throughout the fall and winter. While the flu virus spreads year-round, flu cases usually start to increase in October, with peak infections happening between December and February. The season can last until May.
If you haven’t received your vaccine yet, it’s not too late. Learn how getting vaccinated for the flu can help protect you, your family and your community from serious illness.
Who Should Get the Flu Vaccine?
Everyone age 6 months and older should get the flu vaccine. Like COVID-19, the flu is an illness that can lead to serious health complications and even death. Getting the flu vaccine is the best way to protect yourself. It can help reduce your risk of getting the flu or needing medical care in a hospital. Pregnant women, people age 65 and older and those with underlying health conditions are at increased risk of serious health problems from both viruses. And while most young children seem to be less affected by COVID-19, the flu can cause serious illness in children.
Get your flu vaccine as soon as possible. It takes the body about 2 weeks after vaccination to make enough antibodies to protect you from flu infection. Children who are getting the flu vaccine for the first time may need two doses, given several weeks apart. Pregnant women can safely get the vaccine during every pregnancy. Vaccination during pregnancy allows moms to pass antibodies to their baby during pregnancy and after birth through breastfeeding. This helps protect babies younger than 6 months who are too young to get their own flu vaccine.
How Is This Flu Season Different Than Past Seasons?
With COVID-19 continuing to spread in our communities, flu season may present some unique challenges to public health and health care systems this year.
“Every year flu season takes a toll on public health, but we usually have adequate hospital resources where if you get really sick, there’s a hospital bed or a ventilator there,” said Dr. Daniel Solomon, MD, an infectious disease doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “If we see a lot of COVID circulating and a lot of influenza, we could reach capacity in our health care systems, where if you get really sick, you might not have access to that ICU bed or that ventilator. So there’s risk to the community, but also certainly risk to the individual as well.”
How Do the Flu and COVID-19 Spread?
Both viruses can spread easily from one person to another, between people who are in close contact. Flu and COVID-19 are spread mainly by droplets released when people with either illness cough, sneeze or talk. Droplets can travel through the air and land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.
It also may be possible to get infected by physical contact with other people (for example, shaking hands or hugging another person). Some people may get infected by touching a surface or object that has virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose or eyes.
Both the flu virus and the coronavirus may be spread to others by people before they begin having symptoms or when they have very mild symptoms. Some people are infected with these viruses and never develop symptoms. When a person is infected but doesn’t have symptoms, they’re called asymptomatic. But asymptomatic people can still spread infection to others.
How Can You Protect Yourself from Flu and COVID-19?
There are steps everyone can take to help protect themselves, their families and their communities from infection.
“We don’t have a vaccine for COVID so I think we need to use all the tools in our toolkit to decrease the risk of spreading viruses,” said Dr. Solomon. “Part of that will be behavior —maintaining social distancing and using masks, especially when we’re indoors. But I think we really need to harness that other tool, which is the flu vaccine, to try to decrease transmission of the flu in order to protect our health. While I think it’s a real threat to have both viruses spreading, what we’ve learned from how we decrease COVID may actually help us this season to prevent a really bad flu season.”
Here are steps you can take to prevent flu and COVID-19 infection:
- Get your flu vaccine. Find a flu vaccine provider near you.
- Monitor your health every day. Stay alert to symptoms, including cough, chills, fatigue, fever, shortness of breath, etc. If you’re not feeling well, take your temperature, stay away from others in your home and don’t go out in public. Call your health care provider if you think you’re sick. Testing is the only way to know for sure what illness you may have.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after you’ve been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing. If you don’t have access to soap and water, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.
- Avoid close contact with others. In public, leave 6 feet of distance between yourself and people who don’t live in your household. If a family member is sick at home, keep at least 6 feet away. If possible, stay in separate rooms and use separate bathrooms until they’ve recovered.
- Wear a mask that covers your mouth and nose when you’re around other people. You can spread COVID-19 to others even if you don’t feel sick. The mask helps protect other people in case you are infected. Wear a mask in public, especially when it’s hard to maintain physical distancing. It’s still important to leave about 6 feet between yourself and others even when you wear a mask. The mask is not meant to substitute physical distancing.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. You can also cough or sneeze into inside of your elbow to help prevent the spread of germs. Be sure to throw used tissues in the trash right away. Immediately wash your hands with soap and water or use hand sanitizer.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces around the home every day. This includes doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets and sinks.
Can COVID-19 Safety Measures Help Prevent the Spread of Flu?
Yes. One positive outcome of the pandemic is that behavior changes have made a big impact around the world and there have been some key lessons learned.
“Some of the things that we’ve done to decrease the spread of COVID also decrease the spread of influenza and this bears out in the data,” said Dr. Solomon. “If you look at the end of flu season last year, when COVID started to circulate and we had some lockdowns and people started wearing masks, social distancing, etc. Flu cases dropped off dramatically much faster than in prior years.”
There also have been some encouraging signs that public health efforts have helped other parts of the world during flu season.
“If we maintain some of these practices to decrease the spread of COVID, we actually might see decreased influenza this year as well as they’ve seen that in the Southern hemisphere. Australia and New Zealand have had very, very mild flu seasons and that’s due to change in public behavior.” Everyone’s behavior plays a role in helping to keep our communities as safe as possible from the flu and COVID-19 this fall and winter.