Just as COVID-19 seems to be ramping back up, it's almost time for another dangerous respiratory illness: the flu. Technically, the flu is always around, but cases tend to increase in the fall and peak between December and February.
But this timing means we might be facing down a "twindemic," with the flu and coronavirus putting your health at major risk plus a significant strain on the healthcare system.
"This is the first time where we will see both the flu virus and COVID-19 at the same time," says Kyle Oholendt, MD, internal medicine physician and pediatrician on the medical staff at Methodist Charlton Medical Center. "A flu shot can help."
Doctors are putting out a call to arms for everyone all to roll up their sleeves and get a flu shot. Experts say lives may very well depend on it.
Get your flu shot early
The CDC recommends getting a flu shot before the end of October. Your body needs about two weeks after you get the shot to start forming protective antibodies, so if you get vaccinated in early fall, your immune system will be ready by the time the flu season is raging.
Children ages 6 months to 8 years old often need two doses spaced four weeks apart, so parents will need to plan ahead.
Older adults who get vaccinated especially early in the flu season may want to consider getting a second shot later on, for an extra dose of protection.
They should also consider a high-dose vaccine, which contains four times the amount of antigen, or a shot known as an adjuvanted flu vaccine, which contains an ingredient that promotes a better immune response.
Why should I get a flu shot?
Currently, fewer than half of Americans get a flu shot each year. But if enough people get vaccinated, it will alleviate a major strain that hits doctors' offices and emergency rooms every fall.
"There is good data to support that getting a flu shot helps to reduce the risk of hospitalization, intensive care unit stays, and death related to getting the flu," Dr. Oholendt says.
The worst-case scenario is getting both infections simultaneously. Catching the flu could also put you at higher risk for developing an especially severe case of COVID-19.
Both infections share many of the same symptoms, most notably cough, fever, sore throat, and fatigue. Even a loss of taste or smell commonly associated with COVID-19 can crop up in flu cases.
The people at the greatest risk for flu tend also to be the most vulnerable to COVID-19. This includes anyone over age 65 and those with chronic health conditions like asthma, diabetes, and heart disease. Obesity also raises your risk for both infections.
What if the shot doesn't work for me?
You shouldn’t discount a flu shot just because it's not 100 percent effective.
"Even if someone gets the flu after taking the shot, it is more likely to be mild," Dr. Oholendt says. "That’s a great reason to get it."
Other ways to stave off the flu
Include foods in your diet that feature immune system-supporting nutrients. You can find vitamin C in bell peppers and broccoli, protein in lean meat, eggs, and beans. Additionally, vitamin D is abundant in fortified cereals and dairy products, and beta-carotene can be found in tomatoes and sweet potatoes.
Exercise can help rid the lungs of germs, help antibodies move faster through the blood, and reduce stress hormones, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Don't forget to sanitize
You've probably already been practicing preventive steps — washing hands often, not touching your face, sanitizing frequently touched objects and surfaces — that you'll want to keep doing throughout flu season.
What's the difference between cleaning and disinfecting? The former removes dirt and some, but not all, germs from a surface, and the latter kills germs, according to the CDC.
The CDC recommends regularly cleaning surfaces with soap and water, then using an Environmental Protection Agency-registered disinfectant or a diluted bleach solution to disinfect. Don't miss these germ hot spots:
- Cellphones (an alcohol-based wipe may be best)
- Desks and tabletops
- Door knobs and cabinet knobs or handles
- Kitchen and bathroom counters
- Light switches
- Refrigerator and microwave door handles
- Sink faucets
Be sure to follow product instructions carefully, as some disinfectants and bleaches may not be appropriate for certain surfaces. Also, never mix products, as dangerous fumes may result.
"As we all know, we don't yet have a vaccine to prevent COVID-19," Dr. Oholendt says. "We've had an effective vaccine for the flu since 1945. And we should all make use of it."