With the focus on coronavirus (COVID-19) these past several months, it may be surprising that we are talking about a different virus today. However, with similarities between a flu and COVID-19, it’s more important than ever to prevent the respiratory illnesses we can. According to the CDC, the flu vaccination is “the first and most important step in protecting against flu viruses.” Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas Medical Director, Kellie Bartlow, D.O., answers your flu vaccine questions and explains why it is so important to receive your flu shot this year.
The flu, also known as influenza, causes many of the same symptoms as COVID-19 – including fever, chills, cough, body aches, and fatigue that begin abruptly. Both COVID-19 and the flu take a greater toll on older people and those with other medical problems. However, with the flu young children and pregnant women are also high risk. Each year millions of people contract the flu. Hundreds of thousands are hospitalized for the flu, and tens of thousands die from the flu. Fortunately, the flu shot has been shown to decrease both the risk of the flu and the severity of illness if the flu develops. In even better news, studies have shown widespread vaccination of children creates herd immunity resulting in decreases in the flu in both unvaccinated children and adults of all ages.
Many have questions about the flu vaccine, so I’ll take a few moments to answer common questions I’ve received in the past.
Should I get a flu shot?
Absolutely yes! The CDC, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and countless medical organizations recommend everyone 6 months and older be immunized for the flu every season with only rare exceptions.
I’ve had a flu shot in the past; do I REALLY need to get it again?
Again yes! Because flu viruses are continuously changing (mutating) and because the protection you receive from a seasonal flu vaccine wanes over time, it is recommended to have a flu vaccine every flu season.
I’ve had the flu shot in the past but still got sick. Why?
There are several possibilities for symptoms after the flu shot:
- It takes approximately 2 weeks for immunity to build up after vaccination. So if you were exposed just before or within 2 weeks of immunization, you are still susceptible to the illness. That’s why it’s best to be vaccinated in September or October, early enough that you likely won’t yet have been exposed.
- Flu vaccines don’t prevent other illnesses so you can still develop bad colds or COVID-19, which can be difficult to differentiate from the flu. And the flu vaccine does not prevent the “stomach flu,” which isn’t caused by flu viruses.
- Protection from the flu vaccination can vary – it tends to work best in healthy children and young adults.
- The production of the flu vaccination takes months – all the while the virus is changing. Each season’s vaccinations are a combination of what experts believe are likely to be the most common strains for the season. Sometimes the strains are well matched to the season, other times not so much.
- The bad news is that it is possible to develop the flu after vaccination, but the good news is even if you develop the flu after being vaccinated, the vaccine still helps by decreasing the severity (including the need for hospitalization, length of hospitalization and death) as compared to not having been vaccinated at all.
The flu vaccine gave me the flu in the past; why?
The flu vaccination is unable to cause the flu because the vaccination is made of either dead virus or only parts (proteins) of the virus (in the case of the injections) or weakened virus (in the case of the nasal spray). Weakened, partial and dead viruses don’t cause illness. As above, it is possible to develop an illness due to an unfortunately timed exposure before the vaccine has caused your body to build up an adequate defense. Also, the side effects of the vaccine itself can cause mild flu-like symptoms for a short period, which some have confused with a true infection.
Will getting my flu shot increase my risk of COVID-19?
There is no evidence that the flu vaccination will increase your risk of any respiratory virus, including the virus that causes COVID-19. However, receiving your flu vaccine this season will help to reduce the toll of respiratory illnesses on the healthcare system, leaving more providers and hospital/ICU beds available if needed.
I hope this has helped answer your questions about the flu vaccine and that you’ll reach out to your primary care physician or use the CDC Vaccine Finder to schedule your flu shot!