With all the news about the various COVID-19 vaccines in development, it's easy to forget there's another type of vaccine out there right now, ready to protect us from a potentially serious viral disease: The influenza — or flu — vaccine.
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Because this year's flu season will coincide with the novel coronavirus pandemic, health care providers are sounding the alarm. "Getting a flu shot has never been more important," says Philip Robinson, MD, the medical director of infection prevention at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach, California.
One big concern is the possibility of getting the flu and COVID-19 at the same time.
"No one knows for sure how most people will react to simultaneous infection with these two viruses," says Michael B. Grosso, MD, medical director of Huntington Hospital in Huntington, New York. "However, we have extensive experience with children and adults experiencing co-infection with two or more respiratory viruses. As you might guess, people get sicker, take longer to recover and require hospitalization more often when co-infection happens. It's unlikely to be different with COVID-19 and flu."
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An easy way to protect yourself — beyond hand-washing, wearing a mask and practicing social distancing — is to get the flu vaccine. Yet conflicting information about the vaccine abounds.
For example, believing that one is immune to the flu and therefore doesn't need a vaccine is the number one myth that Bilal Naseer, MD, sees in his practice as an infectious disease specialist and critical care doctor at CommonSpirit Health in Carmichael, California.
Below, Drs. Naseer, Grosso and Robinson share what they know to set the record straight.
Flu Vaccine Myths, Debunked
Don't be misled by one of the following myths:
Myth 1: The Flu Isn't That Serious
Flu statistics show each year in the U.S., about 25 million people are sickened by flu, and between 12,000 and 61,000 people have died from the virus each year since 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
People who are especially vulnerable to serious complications from the flu include those age 65 and older; people with chronic medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease; pregnant women; and children under the age of 5.
"The disease can be life-threatening, regardless of age," Dr. Naseer emphasizes. "It is very important for everybody to get the vaccine and not have this false sense of security. It is extremely preventable. And it hurts me every year when I see somebody very young suffering from it in my ICU."
Now, imagine what might happen when you add in COVID-19, which killed more than 180,000 people in the U.S. (and 870,000 worldwide) during the first eight months of 2020, according to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
Myth 2: I’ve Never Had the Flu, So I Must Be Immune to It
Just because you don't recall having flu symptoms doesn't mean you've never had the flu, says Dr. Naseer. Many times people are asymptomatic or have very mild symptoms. Still, "they are very capable of transmitting to others, which is another really important reason to get the influenza vaccine."
Dr. Robinson is far more blunt in addressing this myth: "I have never been in an automobile accident, but I still wear my seatbelt just in case. I have seen patients who 'never get the flu' and end up in an intensive care unit on a breathing machine fighting for their lives. This could have been prevented with the vaccine."
Myth 3: The Flu Vaccine Will Give Me the Flu
Side effects of the flu vaccine are generally minor, per the CDC, and may include soreness and mild swelling where a shot was given, headache, fever, muscle aches, nausea and fatigue.
Now this may sound like getting the flu, but it's merely your immune system at work, learning how to mount a defense against the flu, says Dr. Naseer. Symptoms are unlikely to last more than 48 to 72 hours.
The flu vaccine can't infect you because vaccines are made with flu viruses that are either dead or weakened, or they may use proteins from the virus, according to the CDC. "It has no potential to harm. It basically gives a body or immune system a little map," Dr. Naseer explains. "It teaches an immune system to be ready for an influenza virus."
Myth 4: I Got the Vaccine and Then I Got the Flu, So It Doesn’t Work
Influenza comes in different strains, and the trick is to match the vaccine to the strains that are likely to be prevalent in a given flu season, says Dr. Naseer. "An influenza virus has surface proteins that go through slight changes every year. These are called antigenic drifts. So we usually predict [strains] three to six months before the flu season."
A new, unanticipated drift may happen that is not covered in the vaccine you took, in which case you may get that strain. "But still, you get protection from the most common strains that were present in the last season and what is predicted to be in the upcoming season," he says.
Myth 5: I Don't Need a Vaccine if I Build Up My Defenses with Vitamin C or Zinc
The CDC advises that supplementing with these nutrients may affect cold symptoms and, in the case of vitamin C, also reduce the risk that people who engage in intense exercise will catch a cold. But the cold and the flu are two different illnesses.
Plus, a flu vaccine offers far superior protection than any nutritional measures you might take, says Dr. Naseer.
But if you still want to boost your immunity after getting the flu vaccine, "You're better off just focusing on good health practices and making sure that your nutrition is adequate and balanced, and that you're getting adequate sleep," he advises. "If you have a well-balanced diet, you will get plenty of vitamin C and zinc."
Myth 6: Pregnant Women Can’t Get the Flu Vaccine
"This is extremely untrue," Dr. Robinson says. "The flu vaccine is proven safe in pregnant women."
What's more, pregnant women are at high risk for the complications of the flu, per the CDC, and the virus could harm the unborn baby, too — fever caused by influenza may be linked to defects in a fetus' brain, spine or spinal cord.
But getting vaccinated during pregnancy protects mom and baby, and as a bonus, mom passes antibodies onto the fetus, which carry on protecting the baby after birth as well.
Myth 7: The Flu Vaccine May Interact Badly With COVID-19
"There is no known interaction between the influenza vaccination and SARS-CoV-2," says Dr. Robinson.
Dr. Naseer says there isn't enough data yet this early in the pandemic to know about any interactions, but points out that the flu vaccine is specifically structured to address the influenza virus, not SARS-CoV-2.
Myth 8: The Flu Vaccine May Decrease My Chances of Getting COVID-19
The previous answer is the reason why this is also a myth.
"Unfortunately, the flu shot won't protect you from COVID-19," Dr. Grosso says. However, being protected from flu will be especially important if COVID-19 surges this fall and hospitals are again overburdened with patients, because the vaccine decreases both your risk of infection and the chance you'll develop symptoms severe enough to land you in the hospital.
Stay safe when getting a flu vaccine by making an appointment, wearing a mask and washing your hands before and after.
3 Things to Know Before You Get a Flu Vaccine
Assuming you are now convinced to get a flu vaccine this fall and to make sure your family is vaccinated, keep the following things in mind.
1. There are some people who should check with their doctor before getting a flu vaccine. "People with a history of severe allergy to any component or certain rare reactions, like Guillain-Barre Syndrome, should not be immunized," says Dr. Grosso.
The CDC further explains that eggs are involved in the production of many vaccines, so if you have an egg allergy, ask your doctor what your options might be — if the allergy is mild, you may be able to get the regular vaccine, but there are also egg-free options available. If you're not sure what type of vaccine you're getting, refer to the vaccine package insert, adds Dr. Robinson.
2. Different vaccines are approved for people in different age groups. The CDC has a rundown of which ones are available this season, and who they are for.
3. Good COVID-19 hygiene (on top of getting vaccinated) may also help to protect you from the flu and other infections. "When the pandemic surge struck our area this spring, we noticed an abrupt drop off in the rate of respiratory virus illnesses, including cold viruses like RSV, adenovirus and others," says Dr. Grosso, who is based in New York State's Long Island. "It is very likely that hand-washing, masks and distancing made the difference."
Concerned About COVID-19?
Read more stories to help you navigate the novel coronavirus pandemic:
- CDC director offers bleak public health outlook for fall and winter
- Key Facts About Influenza (Flu)
- Disease Burden of Influenza
- Naming the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and the virus that causes it
- Q&A on coronaviruses (COVID-19)
- People with Certain Medical Conditions
- Cases, Data and Surveillance
- Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
- Key Facts About Seasonal Flu Vaccine
- Frequently Asked Influenza (Flu) Questions: 2019-2020 Season
- Complementary and Integrative Health Approaches
- Flu and Pregnant Women