Why getting the flu shot is more important than ever this year

September 29, 2020

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that getting the flu vaccine can prevent over 4 million cases of influenza in just one flu season. One study even found that getting your flu shot can reduce your risk of going to the intensive care unit (ICU) with the flu by up to 82%. Getting the flu shot is essential every year—and as we approach winter amidst the coronavirus pandemic, it's more crucial than ever.

An 80% overlap in symptoms

Elizabeth Maslow-Najera, MD, infectious disease specialist at Adventist Health Glendale, notes that the World Health Organization (WHO) cautions that this winter could be one of our worst yet if we don't take the proper steps for infection prevention.

"Anyone who's had the flu knows that it can be some of the worst two weeks of your life," Dr. Maslow-Najera says. "The symptoms of COVID have about an 80% overlap with the flu—and you can't tell which virus you have unless you get tested. If people get co-current infections this year, either at the same time or one right after the other, the fatalities will be much, much higher."

Because of mask mandates and social distancing restrictions in most parts of the country, some people may think that the flu virus won't be as rampant this season. However, the level of adherence to mask-wearing and social distancing guidelines can vary significantly.

"Nobody knows for sure how bad the flu is going to be," says Dr. Maslow-Najera. "And if we do have the winter that the WHO is predicting, there's going to be a lot of grief and suffering. I can't think of a reason not to get your flu shot this year."

What else can you do to avoid the virus?

Besides getting the flu shot, you can take some additional steps to improve your health and avoid catching viruses.

"Vitamin D supplements can help," says Dr. Maslow-Najera. "Especially if you are deficient, like so many of us are. If you smoke or vape, now is the time to stop. And it's a good time for all of us to work on optimizing our weight and diabetes."

With the holidays approaching, it's critical that families take extra steps to keep each other safe. "You need to wear your mask and social distance, even with extended family members," says Dr. Maslow-Najera. "If everyone has been socializing outside the household, this year is not the time to kiss each other on the cheek."

Understanding vaccines

Dr. Maslow-Najera points out that getting flu-like symptoms after getting the shot does not mean you have the flu. "It's an inactivated vaccine, so you can't get live flu from the shot," she says. "Getting some minor symptoms is actually a cue that the vaccine is working."

COVID can be asymptomatic, but the flu cannot, Dr. Maslow-Najera notes. "But if you are coming down with the flu, you can be contagious the day before you feel sick. Continue to stay six feet apart, wear your mask, and wash your hands often."

Find a location near you to get your flu shot today.