In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, health care professionals are uncertain what the flu season will look like this year. Due to the similarity of symptoms, it may be hard to tell the difference between flu and COVID-19 based on symptoms alone. What is known is that there is a vaccine for influenza, and it can potentially help protect you against serious complications.
Eleni Miller, DO, a pediatrician at University of Utah Health, answers questions about influenza and the flu vaccine.
What should the public know about flu shots?
Flu shots are safe. We’ve been giving flu shots to kids for a long time. They generally cause very minimal side effects. Flu shots are not 100% effective, but they help reduce rates of hospitalization and severity of illnesses in both adults and children. Scientific data supports the fact that patients who have received a flu shot are less likely to get seriously ill if they get sick with influenza.
Patients should also know it’s safe to come to a U of U Health clinic and get your vaccine. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have noticed many families are nervous to bring in their children to get medical care. Clinics and pediatricians are doing everything they can to keep families safe so they can get their flu vaccine and other child immunizations.
How can you tell the difference from influenza and COVID-19?
It’s going to be hard to tell the difference between the two viruses. I don’t think anyone is going to be able to examine a patient and determine it’s definitely not COVID-19. In those situations, parents need to reach out to their pediatrician for advice.
Can a child have COVID-19 and the flu at the same time?
It’s definitely possible. I personally have not seen anyone with both viruses at the same time; however, you can get two other viruses at the same time.
Can the flu shot make people sick?
After a patient gets the flu vaccine, their body is ramping up an immune response to exposure to antigens from the flu virus. That’s what we want to happen. We want your immune system to be working and protecting you against the flu. This process could cause some mild symptoms such as body aches or headaches.
The other thing that could happen is, in the two weeks that it takes for your body to develop immunity to the virus, you can get sick with the flu or another respiratory virus. During flu season, we have a lot of respiratory viruses going around, so it’s very common for kids and adults to get other respiratory viruses at the same time.
Will masking help reduce influenza spread?
We don’t exactly know at this time until we get deeper into influenza season to see how it’s going to pan out. There is a possibility that masking, hand hygiene, and physically distancing can help make this a better flu season. However, we shouldn’t let our guards down. We should continue these methods and get immunized. It’s more important than ever to get a flu vaccine.
Do pregnant women need to get a flu shot?
Pregnant women should get a flu vaccine. When pregnant women are vaccinated, they pass antibodies to the babies, which gives them protections when they are born. Babies are not able to get the flu shot until they are six months old.
When is it safe for children to go back to school after getting the flu?
Parents should follow current guidelines on how long to stay home after experiencing flu-like symptoms. Generally, people stop shedding flu-like symptoms after a week, but that doesn’t mean everyone is going to follow those rules. Pre-COVID, pediatricians gave guidance that kids can go back to school after they’ve been without a fever for 24 hours. In these times, we need to be more careful and make sure kids are completely symptom-free before returning to school.
How do you differentiate between the flu and a stomach bug?
There are a few viruses that cause GI (gastrointestinal) or stomach bug. Those symptoms include diarrhea and vomiting. COVID-19 can also cause those symptoms, but it’s more common for adults. Children are more likely to get GI symptoms with influenza than COVID-19. It’s best to talk to your doctor about these symptoms.
Is it true that getting a flu vaccine makes a person more susceptible to getting other viruses?
That is not true. Your body is building up an immune response to the flu, but it does not make your immune system any weaker.
Is it important to get the flu shot every year?
It’s important to get a flu shot year after year because there are different strains of the flu that go into the vaccine. Every year, researchers try to predict the predominant strains, and that’s what they are putting into the vaccine. Those change every year, so it’s important to get the vaccine every year.
Why is getting a flu shot better than no flu shot if it doesn’t 100% protect you?
There are A viruses and B viruses, and within those categories there are many different strains. We don’t know what the predominant strains are going to be every year. Also, during the seasons, there’s an A strain that’s prominent, and then at other times there’s a B strain that’s more prominent. It all depends on what the most prominent strain is and at what time of the year the patient got the flu.
How effective is the flu shot?
Several studies have shown that the flu shot is anywhere between 50% and 80% effective at keeping children out of the hospital.
Does a flu vaccine increase your risk of getting COVID-19?
No. It’s only going to make you safer during the winter season.
Are there different types of flu vaccine deliveries?
There are two different ways to get the flu vaccine. You can get the shot or the nasal vaccine. The flu shot is an activated vaccine, which means it’s not live. The one that goes into your nose is weakened but live. Kids older than 2 years old can get the nasal vaccine, but there are some restrictions. Children with certain chronic medical problems shouldn’t get the nasal vaccine. It’s best to talk to your doctor to see if your child is eligible.
Is the flu shot and nasal vaccine both equally effective?
In the past, pediatricians didn’t give the nasal vaccine because it was thought to be not as effective. There has since been some improvement, so we are hoping it will be as effective this year.
Where can someone get a flu shot?
How soon should someone get a flu shot?
Now is the best time to get a flu vaccine. Our goal at U of U Health is to vaccinate the majority of our patients by the end of October. We give flu shots all through the spring and up until the early summer.
When is the earliest time to get the flu vaccine?
The earliest is usually early September.
How long does the flu vaccine last?
The flu vaccine generally lasts five or six months and steadily decreases from there. Flu can last until the spring, but we want to make sure patients get vaccinated before flu season starts.
Who is considered as high-risk for influenza?
Kids or adults with chronic medical conditions such as heart or lung problems. People with diabetes are at higher risk of complications if they get sick with the flu. People who live or work with high-risk individuals should also get vaccinated.