With the flu season approaching amid the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors are urging people to get a flu shot as early as possible this year.
Usually, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people get a flu shot by the end of October.
But with COVID-19 still complicating matters, health experts say you might want to do it earlier than usual.
“Everybody should be getting their flu shot, as soon as you see it’s available,” said Dr. Anna Matthew, a physician at Washington Health System. “The best bet for prevention of flu for anyone over the age of 6 months is the flu vaccine.”
Usually, the U.S. sees between 9 million and 45 million flu cases each year, according to the CDC.
Last year’s flu season, though, was unusually mild, with only a few thousand cases, likely due in great part to measures taken to stop the spread of COVID-19.
“Last year, our flu season was super-odd compared to normal because people were doing really well with masking and social distancing and hand washing, and we’ve always known these kinds of measures are super-helpful for reducing flu. All those things helped,” said Matthew.
But as the country has opened back up – people have returned to the workplace and classroom – protection offered from a flu shot is even more important.
Matthew noted that it’s safe for people to get the flu shot and the COVID-19 shot at the same time, so if they haven’t been vaccinated against COVID-19, there is no reason to space them apart.
Matthew said it can be very difficult to tell the difference between the flu and COVID-19 since both share some of the same symptoms – fever, cough, sore throat, body aches – so people should get tested for both if they feel sick.
“If you’re having any of those symptoms, get tested. As flu season ramps up, I’m positive you’re going to see dual testing for COVID and flu, as there was during the 2020-21 flu season.”
The U.S. isn’t seeing a lot of influenza right now, but Matthew expects cases to ramp up in the next couple of months.
Flu season typically runs from October through March.
All flu vaccines available this year are designed to protect against four different flu viruses.
Matthew said anyone over 6 months old, including pregnant women, those with chronic illnesses, and immunocompromised people should get the flu shot.
People 65 and older should get the high-dose flu vaccine, but if it isn’t available, Matthew recommends getting the standard-dose flu vaccine.
She added it’s important for children in areas with higher populations – kids in school and students in college – and those who work in health care to get vaccinated.
Matthew also noted people don’t get the flu from the flu shot.
“You can feel a little bit rundown for a day or two, but that’s pretty great because your immune system is working the way it’s supposed to, and the body is building up protection,” said Matthew. “The flu shot doesn’t prevent you from getting the flu completely, but the goal for the flu shot, like the COVID shot, is to prevent death and hospitalization. So yes, you could get mild flu symptoms, but the goal is to keep you from getting so sick that you’re in the hospital on a respirator and in the ICU.”
Nasal spray flu vaccines also are available for those between the ages of 2 and 49 who are not pregnant or immunocompromised. It’s a good option for people who don’t like needles, Matthew said.
Unlike flu shots, the nasal spray option contains weakened viruses, so they will not cause flu illness.
Whichever option you choose, the most important thing, Matthew said, is to get vaccinated against the flu.
“Get your flu shot, get your flu shot, get your flu shot,” said Matthew. “It helps protect you, it helps protect your family, it helps protect your community. Please go get the flu vaccine and continue washing your hands and all of those other measures.”