By Melanie Mouzoon, M.D., F.A.A.P., F.A.B.M.
Flu season has been pretty predictable most every year, and many of us have become accustomed to getting an annual flu shot – it’s certainly nothing new. But this year, getting a flu vaccine could be more important than ever due to a number of issues.
A bonus outcome from our handwashing, sanitizing, and mask wearing for COVID-19 is that it made for a nearly non-existent flu season in 2020. Public health and clinical labs reported just over 2,000 flu cases in the United States last year compared to 38 million U.S. flu cases during 2019-2020 flu season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
This data points to a real concern for this year’s flu season: It is unpredictable. Will people be more vulnerable because they were less exposed last year? What strains are likely to circulate? Will people be more or less likely to get their flu vaccine? The CDC is suggesting flu season could come earlier and be more severe. Unfortunately, only about half of all Americans get an annual flu vaccine in a usual year.
Why All the Concern?
- People who get the flu without a vaccine sometimes require hospitalization. This poses a challenge as many hospitals are overwhelmed and without available beds due to COVID-19.
- Fewer infections one season, such as what the U.S. experienced last year, can possibly lead to a larger outbreak the following season. This has already happened with another serious viral infection, RSV, which affects mostly children. As businesses and venues have opened up and protocols such as mask wearing have become more relaxed, more people could get the flu after not acquiring immunity in the last 18 months.
- Targeting appropriate strains in a flu vaccine are based on insight and research from the previous year. Without information of strains getting people sick, scientists have more difficulty. This makes getting a vaccine even more important, not less.
Can COVID-19 and Flu Vaccines Be Friends?
There’s no reason to worry about getting a COVID-19 vaccine or booster along with the flu vaccine. The CDC says you can get a flu vaccine at the same time you get a COVID-19 vaccine or COVID-19 booster shot.
Yet the two viruses are a different story. People who aren’t vaccinated against COVID-19 and the flu could get both viruses at the same time. This can be a serious threat as your immune system could be overwhelmed and lungs could be weakened from either virus.
It can be challenging to know whether your symptoms are COVID-19 or flu, since many of them overlap. The CDC provides a detailed comparison to help eliminate the guesswork. Testing, however, is the only way to ensure an accurate diagnosis.
Take the Next Step
Flu season typically starts in October in the United States, peaks December through February, and usually lasts until May. The CDC recommends anyone over 6 months to get a flu vaccine by the end of October to be fully vaccinated, since it takes two weeks to reach full immunity.
Dr. Melanie Mouzoon is the managing physician for Immunization Practices at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic. She’s also a board-certified Pediatric hospitalist at Kelsey-Seybold’s Woman’s Center and is a fellow of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine.