With COVID-19 cases rising and temperatures falling, doctors around the country have been sounding the warning that a flu epidemic would exacerbate the COVID-19 pandemic by filling up hospitals with patients and limiting resources for those who need treatment for influenza, COVID-19 or other ailments.
“The big concern is that we are going to see what could be a perfect storm of accelerated COVID-19 activity, as more people gather inside … become fatigued with social distancing, mask-wearing and hand hygiene and then are exposed to seasonal influenza,” Jeanne Marrazzo, MD, director of the division of infectious diseases at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, said at a Sept. 10 media briefing sponsored by the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
The flu season in South America, Australia and the entire Southern Hemisphere, just ended with some good news: The precautions taken to reduce the spread of COVID-19 — lockdowns, distancing and increased hygiene — is credited with a record-low flu season there. But the restrictions that protected the Southern Hemisphere are loosening in the Northern Hemisphere just as flu season is getting started here.
Benefits of the Flu Vaccine
Unlike COVID-19, the flu has a vaccination. Officials are renewing the annual call to encourage healthy individuals to get a flu shot. Even though the flu shot is not a perfect vaccine and offers only 40% to 60% protection from infection, it can provide enormous benefits.
Scientists say that that’s enough to minimize the disease’s spread throughout the population. If you do contract the disease, having had the vaccination may render any flu you do contract less severe, preventing the most serious complications, like pneumonia and even death. Last year, between 24,000 and 62,000 Americans died from the flu and between 410,000 and 740,000 were hospitalized because of it. Flu is rarely listed as cause of death on death certificates. Instead, the cause is more often called pneumonia or another affliction the flu can lead to.
What’s In a Flu Vaccine
To come up with a new flu vaccine each year, researchers make educated guesses as to which strains of flu are most likely to cause the illness based on what circulated the previous year.
“They can never know exactly which strains are going to happen. Each flu shot that we get has at least three or four strains of flu from the preceding season,” says Daren Wu, MD, chief medical officer at Open Door Family Medical Center in New York City.
The main ingredients in influenza vaccines are either dead or weakened flu viruses. These viruses cannot replicate and wreak havoc on your body like a normal flu virus, but their purpose is to prompt your immune system to mount an immune response. This response prepares your body to recognize and respond faster if it does encounter the actual influenza virus later in the season.
The Vaccine’s Possible Side Effects
The flu vaccine can cause side effects, which, while not generally not dangerous, can mimic the types of symptoms you might get from a mild influenza infection. “Once in a while, people have very uncomfortable reactions. Your body aches, [you can experience] chills, headaches. I’ve had those at least twice in the last 20 years of getting flu shots since I became a doctor. And I felt terrible,” says Wu.
It is concerns about side effects that a third of parents cited as the reason for not having their children receive the flu vaccine, according to a survey.
“In the process of mounting that immune response, making the antibodies to be able to battle the real flu, people can feel terrible because it feels like you’re fighting off the flu” Wu says. He adds, “It’s a one, two-day reaction that’s completely different from actually getting the flu, which is a seven-day or more process. One is an immune reaction that is temporary, and the other is you are infected.”
Aside from brief, flu-like symptoms lasting a day or two, patients also report pain or soreness at the injection site. Wu says this reaction is common. He recommends keeping the arm moving to alleviate the pain. If the pain is acute, Wu suggests you taking Tylenol, Advil or Motrin. He cautions, however, that you should only do so if you feel very sick, because it can interfere with the immune system response to the flu shot, which lowers the effectiveness of the flu shot.
Lastly, there are some other possible side effects, depending on the type of vaccine you get. Most vaccines do not not contain thimerosal, a preservative that was once considered controversial, but has since been shown to be safe in vaccines. It does, however, contain egg, which can be a problem for patients with severe egg allergies.
If you or your child has such an allergy, know that most doctors and pharmacists stock a few eggless vaccines, says Wu. These vaccines, known as cell culture vaccines, are made using animal cells and recombinant vaccines that are synthetic and don’t have egg products.
Seniors should get the higher-dose vaccines, which were designed for patients over age 65 to ensure their immune systems respond adequately.
For those who can’t tolerate needles, there are nasal spray flu vaccines. Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says that if you intend to and haven’t already, now is the time to get your flu shot. To find out where, check out this vaccine finder.