Last February, we were still in the midst of flu season and we didn’t think COVID-19 would be a big deal. We brushed off the headlines and brought you information about the seasonal flu instead. Hindsight is 20/20.
But even though coronavirus has consumed our every waking moment for months, seasonal influenza is still a dangerous respiratory illness and deserves our attention. While the flu virus isn’t “novel” to researchers, it does mutate every year. It never gives us a chance to catch up and develop immunity.
The CDC has estimated that between 410,000 and 740,000 Americans were hospitalized due to the flu during the last flu season. According to their data, between 24,000 and 62,000 people died of the virus. With COVID-19 cases still high across the country, avoiding the flu is more important than ever. We need to keep hospital beds available for the thousands of people who are already sick or may contract the coronavirus.
The good news: this year, we’ve developed some good habits that will help us through flu season. Cloth masks, increased hand-washing, and reduced socializing will all help reduce the spread of influenza. But that isn’t enough. Everyone needs to get the flu vaccine too – from six months of age and beyond. Not convinced? Read on.
It's not flu season yet. Isn’t it too early to get a flu shot?
It’s not too early! Experts recommend getting a flu shot by the end of October. Your body needs about two weeks to begin making antibodies, but once your body has developed an immune response, it should last about a year. That means that getting the vaccine now will protect you right through the spring months.
Does the vaccine even work?
Every year, health organizations such as the CDC and WHO forecast which flu strains are likely to arise, and the flu shot is updated to match those strains. Even when the vaccine is not a perfect match for whichever strain takes precedence during flu season, studies have shown that vaccination reduces the risk of flu between 40 and 60 percent. If you get sick anyway, it can reduce the severity of the illness. Even a slight reduction in severity counts: every year, influenza costs the United States an estimated $11.2 billion between healthcare costs and lost productivity.
I’m not comfortable going to my primary care doctor for a flu shot right now.
Guess what? You don’t have to. As of 2009, all 50 states have given pharmacists the authority to administer flu vaccines. Since then, pharmacies have helped increase vaccination rates. From 2003 to 2013, the overall percentage of Americans who received a flu shot rose from 32.2% to 40.3%.This may not sound like a big improvement, but it demonstrates that offering immunizations in a nontraditional setting improves access to preventative care. In fact, you can find a local pharmacy that provides the flu shot through the CDC’s Flu Vaccine Finder.
I’m vomiting, so I must have the flu.
That isn’t likely if you’re an adult. Seasonal influenza is a respiratory illness like COVID-19, not a gastrointestinal one. What we often call “the stomach flu” isn’t influenza but gastroenteritis caused by noroviruses. True flu symptoms come on suddenly and include a stuffy nose, sore throat, dry cough, body aches, headaches, fatigue, and malaise. Some patients will have a fever. Children may also have vomiting and diarrhea, but those symptoms are uncommon in adults. If you’re an adult and experiencing both respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms, then you may have COVID-19.
How can I tell if I have the flu or COVID-19?
Unfortunately, the influenza virus and coronavirus can produce similar symptoms. Either illness can cause fatigue, sore throat, cough, shortness of breath, a stuffy or runny nose, muscle aches, and headaches. Fevers, nausea, and diarrhea are more likely with COVID-19 than with the seasonal flu. The coronavirus also has a few unique symptoms, such as loss of smell and taste, “COVID toes,” and skin rashes. However, the only way to be sure is to get a COVID-19 test.
Regardless of which virus caused your symptoms, seek emergency care if you start having trouble breathing or have persistent chest pain.
If I get sick, antibiotics will help me get over the flu.
Sorry, they won’t. Antibiotics fight bacteria. Influenza is caused by a virus. Thus antibiotics will do absolutely nothing. Instead, most patients simply have to wait it out. They should drink plenty of water and follow COVID-19 protocols: stay home, avoid contact with other people, and wear a mask to reduce transmission. Patients with severe symptoms or who are in a high-risk group may be prescribed an antiviral to fight the virus, as well. (If you’re prescribed an antiviral, make life easier by getting it delivered.)
As we head into flu season, don’t let your guard down. Cover your sneezes, wash your hands regularly, and avoid touching your face. If you still haven’t gotten a flu shot, call your nearest pharmacy to see if it’s available. Even if you’re not concerned for your own health, getting the vaccine can help protect vulnerable people. It’s a lot like wearing a mask: it’s partly for your own sake, but partly for the good of your community. If you’re still not convinced, talk to your pharmacist!