Update to a previously published article.
You wake up one morning with a runny nose. You develop a cough. Your body aches. Is it a cold? Is it COVID-19? Or is it the flu? At this time of year, it can be hard to know which virus you’ve caught and what to do next. While the common cold is fairly harmless, we know COVID-19 is dangerous – and influenza can be, too. After all, the CDC has found that, depending on the year, anywhere from 140,000 to almost a million Americans are hospitalized due to the flu. With hospital staff already exhausted by COVID cases, it’s a good idea to avoid the flu and possible hospitalization at all costs.
The seasonal flu is remarkably good at mutating in ways that catch our immune systems by surprise. That fact, combined with low flu activity since March 2020 thanks to pandemic precautions, means that Americans are particularly vulnerable to this year’s flu. What’s the best way to avoid it? You guessed it – getting the flu vaccine. Not convinced? Concerned about getting multiple vaccines at the same time? Afraid of needles? We’ve got the facts. Read on!
Isn’t it too early to get a flu shot?
Experts recommend getting a flu shot by the end of October. You can certainly get it later, but your body needs about two weeks to begin making antibodies. Getting it now will ensure you have immunity before the virus starts to spread. That immunity should last about a year, giving you protection right through the spring months.
Does the vaccine even work?
Short answer: yes. 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. This year, all available vaccines are quadrivalent, meaning they protect against four different strains. If you do catch the flu, being vaccinated has been shown to reduce the severity of your illness.
I need to get the COVID-19 vaccine/booster. Can I get my flu shot at the same time?
Yes. Since you should get your COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible and your flu shot before the end of October, getting both at the same appointment is perfectly acceptable and should not alter the effectiveness of either. If possible, get the injections in different limbs. Other than injection-site soreness in both places, any other side effects shouldn’t be any worse than if you’d received the injections separately.
I’m afraid of needles. Is there an alternative for me?
Possibly. In addition to the traditional injectable vaccines, a nasal spray flu vaccine has been approved for most healthy people between the ages of 2 and 49 years old. People who are pregnant, have cochlear implants, have weakened immune systems, are taking certain medications, or have other exceptions cannot receive the nasal spray. Talk to your doctor about this option.
I’m not comfortable going to my primary care doctor for a flu shot right now.
Try your pharmacist instead! 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.
How can I tell if I have a cold, the flu, or COVID-19?
Unfortunately, all of these respiratory viruses can produce similar symptoms. The common cold can cause a cough, a stuffy or runny nose, sore throat, shortness of breath, and headaches.
In addition to these symptoms, the flu can cause:
- Muscle aches
COVID-19 can cause not only all of the above, but also:
- Loss of smell and taste
- Skin rashes
- ”COVID toes”
The only way to be sure is to get a COVID-19 test. Even if you’re fully vaccinated and reasonably certain you don’t have COVID, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Regardless of which virus caused your symptoms, seek emergency care if you start having trouble breathing, have persistent chest pain, or are running a high fever (over 102 degrees).
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. While children may have vomiting and diarrhea with the flu, those symptoms are uncommon in adults. If you’re an adult and experiencing both respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms, then you may have COVID-19. Get tested!
If I get sick, antibiotics will help me get over the flu.
Antibiotics fight bacteria. Influenza is caused by a virus. Therefore, taking a Z-pak won’t help you get better. In fact, taking antibiotics when you don’t need them contributes to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These superbugs cause thousands of deaths per year.
To get over the flu, most patients simply have to wait it out. Drink plenty of water, get lots of sleep, and follow COVID-19 protocols: stay home, avoid contact with other people, and wear a mask to reduce transmission. That said, patients with severe symptoms or who are in a high-risk group may be prescribed an antiviral to fight the virus. (If you’re prescribed an antiviral, call your pharmacy and ask about getting it delivered through ScriptDrop!)
If you haven’t gotten a flu shot yet, make a point to do so before Halloween. Call your healthcare provider, go to your local pharmacy, or if you work in an office, ask if your employer plans to do a flu vaccine clinic.
Before and after that flu shot, keep following viral prevention protocol: cover your sneezes and coughs, wash your hands regularly, avoid touching your face, and wear a mask in public. Even if you’re not concerned for your own health, getting the vaccine can help protect vulnerable people and avoid overtaxing hospitals. If you’re still not convinced, talk to your pharmacist!