As the winter months will soon be upon us, let's address a number of questions being asked this year. In particular, is it important to get vaccinated against the flu and does this action effect or interfere with my body fighting other viruses such as COVID-19?
Who should get a flu vaccine and what are the side effects?
Firstly, it’s important to state that medically the seasonal influenza (flu) vaccine should not interfere with the body’s ability to fight off COVID-19. This winter is no different to others and the influenza viruses will be circulating in our communities. Generally speaking it’s recommended that everyone aged 6 months and up (with rare exceptions) receive the flu vaccine to prevent either acquiring the virus or developing severe influenza, which may lead to hospitalizations, ICU admissions, or in some severe cases, death.
Concerning side effects that can occur after getting a vaccine: while the vaccine cannot give you the flu illness, there are different side effects that may be associated with getting a flu shot or even a nasal spray flu vaccine. These side effects are mild and short-lasting, especially when compared to symptoms of a bad case of flu.
In truth you cannot get the flu from a shot but there are some minor side effects that may occur including soreness, redness, and/or swelling where the shot was given, low-grade headaches, fever, muscle aches, nausea and fatigue. Also remember that the vaccine doesn’t work right away - it takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies to develop in the body and provide protection against a flu virus infection. That’s why it’s best to get vaccinated before the flu viruses start to spread in your community.
So does a flu vaccine increase your risk of getting COVID-19?
In reality there is no evidence that getting the vaccine increases your risk of getting sick from a coronavirus, like the one that causes COVID-19. There was a report earlier this year (issued after a study from the Department of Defense) that stated that receiving this vaccination may increase the risk of other respiratory viruses (a phenomenon known as virus interference) but this report was later found to be incorrect.
What about allergies?
People who have a history of severe egg allergy (those who have had any symptom other than hives after exposure to egg) should be vaccinated in a medical setting, supervised by a health care provider who is able to recognize and manage severe allergic reactions.
And once you get the flu vaccine how effective is it?
This is known as Vaccine Effectiveness (VE) and it can vary from season to season and depends in part on the age and health status of the person getting the vaccine and if it’s a good match for that season. Remember these viruses are constantly changing so it’s not unusual for new flu viruses to appear each year. In addition the timing of flu is difficult to predict and can vary in different parts of the country and from season to season. It is possible to have flu, as well as other respiratory illnesses, such as COVID-19 at the same time. Nevertheless health experts are still studying how common this can be. It is confusing since some of the symptoms of flu and COVID-19 are similar making it hard to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone. Only diagnostic testing can help determine if you are sick with flu virus or with COVID-19.
Finally can I get seasonal flu even though I got a flu vaccine this year?
The answer is unfortunately yes – it is possible to get sick even if you have been vaccinated (although you won’t know for sure unless you get a flu test). However, vaccination tends to reduce severity of illness in people who get vaccinated but still get sick. Also getting vaccinated yourself may also protect people around you, including those who are more vulnerable to serious flu illness, like babies and young children, older people, and people with certain chronic health conditions.
Despite the many benefits offered by vaccination, only about half of Americans get an annual flu vaccine and the virus continues to cause millions of illnesses, hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations and tens of thousands of deaths per year. The bottom line is that many more people could be protected from the flu if more people got vaccinated.
Please note that this article is not intended to serve as a substitute for the advice of a physician or medical professional.